Cuts threaten science practicals

With industry leaders bemoaning `pathetic’ budgets, the hands-on principles of the new curriculum are under threat. Emma Seith reports
4th May 2012, 1:00am


Cuts threaten science practicals

Inadequate science department budgets and falling numbers of science technicians are “endangering” practical work in Scottish schools, TESS has learned.

Giving pupils the freedom to experiment and investigate is widely regarded as the key to improving understanding and engagement when it comes to science. And under Curriculum for Excellence, pupils have been told to expect more hands-on experiences.

However, a TESS investigation has revealed the number of technicians who support science teachers by setting up experiments and maintaining equipment is falling and school science budgets have been branded “dire”, “derisory” and “pathetic” not only by teachers, but also academics delivering science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at university and scientists working in STEM industries.

The head of science in one school told TESS his chemistry department received more funding a decade ago than it does today. His science department as a whole “scrapes by”, relying on investments in equipment made before many staff were born, he says.

The subject of technological studies, meanwhile, is being dropped by some because it is too expensive to deliver, according to one commentator.

The uncertain future faced by many school technicians was revealed in the TESS’s annual analysis of council education budgets (TESS, 24 February).

In South Lanarkshire, seven full-time secondary school technician posts were cut to save pound;180,000; East Dunbartonshire planned to plug the pound;592,000 cut to its education budget in part by not filling school technician posts; and in North Ayrshire, technician services shouldered a cut of pound;50,000.

Other disturbing trends uncovered by TESS include: local authorities abandoning formulae that dictated school technician numbers and instead leaving such decisions up to individual schools; a move towards “whole school” technicians, leaving them less time to support science teachers; technicians’ time being consumed by IT issues; fully-qualified technicians being replaced by technical assistants; and a reduction in school technician hours and salaries, with councils increasingly opting to employ technicians during term-time only.

The number of technicians working in schools has been reduced by 25-30 per cent in just two years, estimates Jennifer Hannah, Scotland’s senior professional officer at Voice, the education professionals’ union, which represents school technicians.

Technology departments have suffered most from the cuts, she says. They now have to carry out most of their own preparation of materials and tool maintenance. Science departments receive input from technicians only after they have carried out electrical testing and computer maintenance elsewhere in the school.

Ms Hannah continues: “Because the schools rely so heavily on computers for communication and pupil registration, this is seen as a priority. Only once that time is allocated can the technicians start to look at the needs of the departments.

“Technicians are as frustrated by the lack of support they are able to offer as the teachers are,” she adds.

Schools that have a good technician structure are able to do more practical work with pupils, argues Phil Muggins, manager of technician continuing professional development at the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre.

“Schools cannot afford to be without this valuable resource,” she says. “If technician numbers continue to fall, it could have a serious impact on the provision of practical activities. Schools need well-qualified technician staff, able to support curriculum demands.”

Science technicians are essential if practical work is to be carried out on a “period-by-period basis” in schools, says Stuart Farmer, head of physics at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen and a council member of the Association for Science Education.

He says: “In schools it could be that equipment is being used in a dozen different labs at different times over the course of a few weeks. Equipment can only move around like that and arrive in a fit state to be used if somebody is looking after it.”

Mr Farmer was the only teacher on the Science and Engineering Education Advisory Group (SEEAG), which reported earlier this year. Its task was to advise the Scottish government on how to improve performance in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Practical work was the “core” of science, engineering and technology, said the group. It deemed a technician support service “essential”, while the provision of a “sufficient” number of technicians was one of their recommendations.

It cited a report by the Royal Society, which concluded that without adequate numbers of science technicians, students’ learning would be impaired, achievement would suffer, and safety would be compromised.

Another major threat to practical work in Scottish schools identified by SEEAG was the cutting of science department budgets.

“There has been concern about the supply and maintenance of up-to-date equipment in Scottish secondary school science departments for many years,” states its report, entitled Supporting Scotland’s STEM Education and Culture.

A good-quality demonstration by a teacher had its place but “hands-on doing in the classroom by all pupils” was the “best means for developing their skills and understanding”, it said.

Between 2001 and 2003, Mr Farmer carried out research into physics department budgets. He found that on average physics departments received under a fifth (16.5 per cent) of the funding recommended by the Scottish Science Equipment Research Centre (as it then was) for replacing, maintaining and updating equipment; more than half of their budgets went on photocopying and other non-equipment costs.

Today, budgets were likely to be “under even greater pressure”, said the SEEAG report.

One head of science in the central belt told TESS he had a budget of just over pound;4,000 in a school of around 1,000 pupils. The bulk of funding goes on photocopying and stationery with “very little” spent on scientific apparatus, chemicals or other consumables.

“We scrape by, relying in large part on investments made before many of us were even born,” he says. “Many key pieces of apparatus date back to the 1970s and 1960s, sending the message to pupils that science is old- fashioned.”

He could bid for extra money, but this would amount to just an extra pound;100 “here and there”, he says.

“If a major piece of equipment breaks down, we can’t replace it or repair it. We just have to quietly drop any associated experiments.”

He concludes that poor funding is “endangering the teaching of science as a practical subject in Scottish schools”.

A science faculty head in a school of roughly the same size in a different authority told TESS he received pound;8,091 this year.

Even with twice the budget he still has to “make do and mend”, he says. But repairs are difficult, “especially with cutbacks in the technician support service”.

Photocopying is an ever-increasing cost because of new courses being developed for CfE, he continues. To date, his faculty has spent roughly pound;2,500 on photocopying alone.

This is a cost pressure his less well-off colleague is also familiar with. The new curriculum is rendering existing textbooks more or less redundant, he says, forcing teachers to home-produce masses of new paperwork for pupils.

A principal teacher of physics in the north, meanwhile, in a school with over 700 pupils, has pound;1,000 a year to play with. Jotters, photocopying and consumables immediately swallow up around half. The situation is “grim”, he says.

“There is no additional funding for any equipment under CfE, or for that matter, for Nationals 4 and 5, which are commencing soon.”

The consequence of never having enough money is teacher-led demonstrations with “kids watching rather than doing” and homemade equipment in school science labs, says Gordon Doig, education manager for Scotland at the Institute of Physics.

“Industry is screaming out for better investigative skills,” continues Mr Doig. “Curriculum for Excellence is supposed to address that, but if you don’t have the equipment .”

“Derisorily-sparse budgets” for science in school are condemned by Professor Alan Roach of STEM-ED, a partnership involving the deans of science and engineering in Scotland, which aims to champion world-class education in STEM.

“It has been claimed that technological studies has been abandoned as a subject in many schools because of practical costs requirements,” he adds.

School science department budgets are “pathetic”, says Allan Colquhoun of SELEX Galileo, one of Europe’s leading avionics companies.

“The figure I had heard was pound;5 per pupil per year, but when I mentioned that at a recent meeting a teacher said `if you’re lucky’. It’s just incredibly small - and that’s secondary schools.”

The picture, however, is not entirely bleak.

In March, education secretary Michael Russell succumbed to pressure and provided pound;3.5 million worth of training and support materials for the new National 4 and 5 courses. In response to the SEEAG report, the Scottish government announced an investment of around pound;1.8 million in professional development, specifically for those involved in school science education.

Already government funding has enabled the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre to provide CfE support to around 1,700 science teachers, student teachers and technicians every year since 2008.

And while science departments might be struggling to make ends meet, more and more pupils are opting to study their subjects.

Between 2007 and 2011, pupil numbers fell in Scotland, but the number of students opting to sit Highers in chemistry, biology and physics rose. Universities are reaping the rewards.

“Twenty years ago, universities were recruiting students; now they are selecting them,” says Mr Doig.

Professor Roach agrees this is the trend: “There was great concern about falling numbers of university entrants in STEM subjects through the 1990s and in the earlier part of the last decade. However, more recently there has been a significant recovery in numbers across STEM subjects as a whole.”

Scottish education, however, is undergoing its biggest overhaul in a generation, thanks to Curriculum for Excellence. This is business’s biggest concern, says Dr Colquhoun, SELEX Galileo’s university liaison manager in Edinburgh.

He says: “The fundamental problem is this narrowing of the curriculum, with some schools talking about pupils studying a smaller number of subjects earlier under CfE. It’s a huge concern for business that this 3+3 model will produce a sharp drop in the number of people taking STEM subjects.”

Last year, in its final “state of the nation” report on science and maths education, the Royal Society praised the way science was taught in Scotland. Its figures showed 50 per cent of pupils took Highers or Advanced Highers in the core sciences, compared with 37 per cent taking A- levels in Northern Ireland, 28 per cent in England and 27 per cent in Wales.

The Royal Society urged the other home nations to emulate Scotland. The higher the participation rates, it reasoned, the larger the pool of potential STEM undergraduates.

However, if under CfE pupils choose fewer subjects earlier on in secondary, the amount of science Scottish pupils study is likely to decrease. That in turn could impact on the numbers going on to study STEM subjects at university, continues Dr Colquhoun. This would have serious consequences for businesses such as SELEX Galileo, which employs more than 2,000 people, 60 per cent of whom are degree-qualified, he says. Currently SELEX Galileo in Edinburgh has over a dozen science and engineering vacancies it is struggling to fill, he told TESS.

A Scottish government spokesman says the uptake of science subjects and qualifications will be kept under review. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that it will be adversely affected by the implementation of the new curriculum, he adds.

The Scottish Schools Education Research Centre is due to publish a comprehensive survey of technician numbers in the near future. This will also include information about technicians’ uptake of CPD.


The Scottish government has identified energy and life sciences as two of its “priority sectors” in its overall economic strategy.

A Low Carbon Economy Strategy, published in November 2010, predicted that 60,000 new green jobs could be created by 2020. Most of these jobs would have a direct science, engineering or technology relevance.

However, the government and employers in STEM-based industries in Scotland have expressed concern about the future supply of well-qualified, highly- skilled scientists and technicians.

The 2007 results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) “painted a picture of Scotland standing still while other nations pushed by”, said the then education secretary, Fiona Hyslop. Results in maths and science from the Programme for International Student Assessment 2009 showed Scotland had not improved on its place as a mid- ranking performer.

The TIMSS results prompted the government to hold a School Science Summit. Its recommendation underpinned the Science and Engineering 21 action plan, whose implementation has been progressed by the Science and Engineering Education Advisory Group, which published its findings in January.


By the time computers are 100 years old, they will be as intelligent as humans and in the future every aspect of a person’s life will be recorded. A new science, “synthetic biology”, meanwhile, will allow us to develop things such as flu vaccines faster, cheaper and better.

These were some of the predictions made by the scientists involved in “Scotland 2030 - what’s next for Scottish science”, a session at last month’s Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Producing the next generation of scientists to lead these developments and continue Scotland’s proud record of producing around 100 times more of the world’s scientific research than you would expect, given its size, would not be a problem, they believed.

Professor Joyce Tait is scientific adviser at the University of Edinburgh’s Innogen Centre, which investigates the implications of the development of genomics.

She said: “It’s not going to be a problem if we put our minds to training and enthusing young people. It starts with schools and getting schools fired up to have more people becoming scientists, technicians and so on.

“There are a lot of television programmes just now that clearly have as their aim enthusing young people about science,” she added.

The skills gap, when it came to the energy sector, was not scientists, but welders and machinists, said the director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, Andy Kerr.

Ian Ritchie, a technology entrepreneur and investor, felt that the school system was “not in the desperate state the politicians say it is”.

He was optimistic about the impact Curriculum for Excellence would make and relieved that in Scotland you still had to have a degree in a subject to teach it.

“Over the past few years, science applications to universities have been going up,” he added.

Boundaries between different disciplines caused by the structure of universities and research funding were bemoaned at the festival, however. It was pointed out that new areas of research, such as synthetic biology, combined science and engineering.

The Scottish education system was also guilty of erecting barriers between disciplines. A molecular biologist turned primary teacher told the panel he was refused entry to secondary teaching because he was considered neither a chemist nor a biologist. Professor Tait revealed teaching was closed to her for similar reasons after she qualified from university as a pharmaceutical chemist.

“More important than specific subjects is to train people to think for themselves and to pick holes in other people’s arguments and understand different disciplines,” she said. “A broad-based education is important.”

However, a post-doctoral graduate who had struggled to find work said the problem for Scotland wasn’t getting the scientists, but knowing what to do with them once they were there.

“Lots of PhDs can’t find a job,” he said.

There were 200 registered chemistry companies in Scotland, but at a recent careers fair only three had turned up, he continued.

PhD students could be seen as “cheap labour”, said Andy Kerr. If you had a big grant you would get a “post doc” but if you had a small grant you would get a PhD student and little thought was given to whether or not they would find work afterwards, he said.

His centre preferred to employ master’s students because PhD students were “over-trained”, he said.

Ian Ritchie, meanwhile, said that PhD students were seen as aiming for an academic career; not one in business.

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