Science education is in a mess. In this country, we revel in a rich scientific past with discoveries by giants ranging from Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin to Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking lighting up our history. Not unreasonably, prime minister Theresa May has said that she wants Britain to continue to be “a leader in science and innovation”. And the Conservative manifesto for the last election talked about how “our long-term prosperity depends upon science, technology and innovation”.
However, the pipeline to get to that future is not so much leaky, as gushing. If the government wants to get more young people studying science and engineering to meet future needs, especially after we leave the EU, it needs to look carefully at the obstacles it has placed all along the way.
In primary schools, where the spark for that Bunsen burner of curiosity, inquiry and sheer delight needs to be ignited, research from the Wellcome Trust found that more than half of classes did not get even two hours of science a week – the international weekly average for primary science teaching in similar nations.
Worryingly, 30 per cent of primary teachers also said they had not received any support for science teaching in the previous year.
Perhaps this is why only 23 per cent of Year 6s reached the expected standard in science in 2016’s end-of-primary school assessments, compared with 66 per cent for reading and 70 per cent for maths.
Since science was removed from key stage 2 Sats in 2009, it’s very much become a poor relation to literacy and maths in primary, something Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman highlighted earlier this year. Very few teachers in primary talk about science. They talk about scientific things, about science projects, about space, and water. But rarely do they talk about actual science, perhaps unsurprisingly when initial teacher training fails to prepare them for it.
Search for solutions
There is, of course, no denying the importance of literacy and numeracy – including for scientists. A 2017 Education Endowment Foundation and Royal Society report underlined that the strongest factor affecting pupils’ science scores was how well they understood the written text. The great physicist Stephen Hawking, who died recently, certainly understood this, blaming progressive methods for his failure to learn to read when at his first school.
It would be depressing though if the only answer to ensuring more teaching of science in primary schools were reinstating assessment for the subject at KS2. But unless some inspired minds can come up with a solution, this might be the sole option.
And the problem is only exacerbated as we move further along the education system. At secondary, the barriers stack up: a mere 78 per cent of science teachers are specialists in their subject (91 per cent in independent schools) and in recent years, the government has missed teacher recruitment targets in all of the three main science subjects. In physics, the situation is woeful: in 2016, there were 430 applications to start ITT– a drop of almost a quarter in just one year.
Then there’s Progress 8, doubling down on the problem at primary school by valuing English and maths twice as much as science subjects (sorting out this weighting would be rather less controversial than the assessment option at KS2).
And, of course, there’s Ofsted, where science is mentioned in just 21 per cent of key findings of secondary inspections, compared with maths at 57 per cent and English at 56 per cent.
At its heart, science is about inquiry and always questioning. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the father of modern anthropology, said a scientist “is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions”.
Sadly, Mrs May knows the right answers but on science, her education ministers are failing to ask themselves any questions at all.