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Boffins in battle of the budgets

As Science Week begins today, Neil Munro and Douglas Blane report on the latest moves to revitalise teaching in schools

The pound;2 billion school rebuilding programme can be used to upgrade crumbling science laboratories in addition to the pound;18 million specifically set aside for the purpose, the Deputy Education Minister made clear last week.

Euan Robson was speaking in a Holyrood debate on setting up the Institute of Science Education, a network of scientists and science teachers whose aim is to support excellence in science teaching.

Mr Robson's remarks come hard on the heels of a damning report on the resourcing of physics departments in Scotland which claims that cash for science has been "subverted" and siphoned off to other subjects by headteachers and education authorities (TESS, February 13).

The report, compiled by Stuart Farmer, chair of the Association for Science Education in Scotland, was based on returns from 68 secondaries. Physics departments reported that their budgets shrank by 12 per cent in real terms from 2001-03, while in state schools the reduction was 15 per cent.

Mr Farmer, head of physics at the independent Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen, told The TES Scotland that he has "good anecdotal information that in most schools the amounts the three sciences get are almost always very similar".

The Scottish Executive's pound;18 million is not intended just for capital investment in science equipment, as Mr Robson noted in his speech to MSPs.

It also has to be used for teacher training and updating teaching materials. And the cash is stretched out over four years.

The Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre, which suggests that the Executive's sums are a drop in the ocean, has estimated that around pound;40 million would have to be spent in state secondary schools to bring physics equipment up to the required standard.

"Even if it reached its intended recipients, the Executive's pound;18 million over four years across all the sciences for equipment and CPD simply would not do the job," Mr Farmer commented.

He believes that "significant amounts of funding" did not reach schools in a number of authorities because it was diverted to staffing costs - "such as development officers for science 5-14, who were reinventing wheels all over the country". Even when funds did reach departments and were used to buy new equipment, a "management dynamic in state schools acts to minimise any gains.

"If the science department is getting additional funding from the Executive, the headteachers - who are under pressure from all departments - tend to divert elsewhere money that would normally have gone to science," Mr Farmer says. "As a result, science ends up getting the same as before or even less.

"This is one of the key problems - how do you ensure that subjects assigned extra funding to meet national priorities continue at the same time to get their normal funding?"

While the Executive hailed its investment in science last spring as marking the end of "outdated and obsolete science equipment", its response to Mr Farmer's criticisms was more muted.

"In offering grant funding, the Scottish Executive has provided a broad steer to authorities as to how funds might be allocated," a spokesperson said.

"When education authorities receive grant funding, it is entirely a matter for them to determine how best it should be allocated to schools within their area, taking account of national initiatives, flexibility within the curriculum and their own determination of local need."

A "broad steer" is not what science teachers were led to expect, Mr Farmer states, "and the further away from the centre you get, the wider that broad steer seems to become."

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