Traditionally, the science technician was there to make sure teachers and pupils had the necessary apparatus to hand for their practical laboratory work. The teacher put in a list and the technician got on with it, becoming invisible once the lesson was under way.
That state of affairs is changing rapidly: lab technicians are increasingly helping pupils with their work and adding their own thoughts and experience to the preparation of lessons. A report from The Royal Society and the Association for Science Education (Supporting Success: science technicians in schools and colleges, January 2002) found that two out of three heads of science (69 per cent) said their technicians had direct contact with students.
At St James Catholic High school in Cheshire, for example, staff regard lab technicians as partners in teaching. The technicians have been heavily involved in setting up projects and in helping to put them into action in the lab. Datalogging, particularly, is one of those lab activities that often calls for extra adult support at the planning and practical stages.
Referring to the school's technicians, head of department Philip Bodey says: "They can have a presence in the classroom, troubleshooting during lessons. So if the pupils are dealing with datalogging the technicians will come and help and be a second pair of hands."
Susan Palmer, one of the technicians at St James, says: "The role's changed enormously over the past ten years. We're required to have a lot more skills." Compared to several other countries, where science teaching relies on lecture demonstrations, the UK's stress on pupil experiments is hugely valuable and motivating.
At Greneway middle school in Royston, Hertfordshire, Jenny John, a technician for 15 years, helps with planning and spends time in lessons. "Today," she says, "we had a class working with a mixture of water, sand, gravel and leaves and they had to get a beaker of clear water out of it, by sieving and filtering. I was able to go round and help as they were doing this."
Technicians are adopting the mantle of classroom support assistant - moving around the room, helping children who are struggling, explaining words on the worksheet, unravelling glitches with equipment and software.
At St James, head teacher Rhona Seviour is employing more teaching assistants across the curriculum. "I can no longer imagine science without a teaching assistant," she says, "and I'd like to employ more."
At the same time, Ms Seviour emphasises that the core role of the lab technician must be preserved. Training focuses on key responsibilities. "Science technicians work in a hazardous area with large groups of children," she says, "and because of that the training has to be quite specific."
And Susan Palmer at St James, a lab technician working with older pupils than Greneway's nine-to-13s, is clear that she is not a classroom assistant. She says: "When we go in we don't see ourselves in that role. We don't have enough time to do that. We're there to help on the technical side, helping pupils through the technical problems they don't understand."
Greneway and St James are fortunate in the level of their technicians' qualifications. Jenny John is a chemistry graduate; Susan Palmer's degree is in micro-biology. In common with many other schools, Greneway and St James benefit from highly qualified people who, for personal reasons, are prepared to work in supporting roles.
What is clear, though, is that the ad hoc changes in the role of lab technicians seen at schools such as Greneway and St James need to be backed by a proper career structure, including training, especially if younger people are to be recruited to the work. This is also the finding of Supporting Success and of the ASERS survey of technicians that preceded it (Survey of science technicians in schools and colleges, July 2001).
The RSAASE documents make it clear that that the presence in a school of enough well motivated, highly trained technicians makes all the difference to the quality of learning in science.
Supporting Success concludes that 4,000 extra technicians are needed. To attract and support these new people there should be a career structure in four stages. They are described as "Trainee Science Technician", "Science Technician", "Senior Science Technician" and "Science Technician Team Leader".
These roles would be linked to appraisal, experience and qualification through the NVQ system. Pay scales would be brought into line, perhaps under the wing of the School Teachers' Review Body.
One of the keys to progress, according to ASE deputy chief executive John Lawrence, is to set up the NVQ system. "Training programmes offer technicians, for the first time, recognition, a career structure and a pay scale - but so far there aren't enough NVQ training centres out there," he says.
ASERoyal Society Survey of Science Technicians and Supporting Success are available on the Royal Society website at www.royalsoc.ac.uk or the ASE website at www.ase.org.uk For details of the National Science Technicians Awards, see www.salters.co.ukinstitutetechnicians_prize.asp; information also available at www.iop.org