Science drive to catalyse shaky schools

Neil Munro

SCHOOLS will be told to raise their game when Jack McConnell, Education Minister, announces his contribution to the Executive's new science strategy next week.

The strategy was unveiled by Wendy Alexander, Lifelong Learning Minister, on Monday at the Glasgow Science Centre. It will be supervised by a Scottish Science Advisory Committee, led by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE).

The main thrust lies in the promotion and application of science, particularly in higher education where the Executive wants to encourage academics to exploit their work commercially - "from the lab to the labour market".

Enterprise awards are now available to lecturers to launch companies which can develop their ideas.

Another of the five key objectives of the strategy will be "ensuring that enough people study science to meet the future needs of Scotland".

There is concern, however, that ministers' ambitions may be derailed if interest in science is not stimulated at a much younger age, hence the focus on schools. The Scottish Science Trust, which represents the five science centres, says there has been a drop in the number of under-16s studying science while many of those who do go on to become doctors or vets rather than scientists.

Most primary teachers have an arts background, the trust points out.

Mr McConnell will be aware that reports over the years, most recently HMI's review of 5-14 science in 1999, have repeatedly drawn attention to primary teachers' lack of knowledge and confidence.

Inspectors also drew attention to major problems in the way science was taught - "lack of challenge, lack of scientific activity, repetition of content and slow pace of work". This was all the more serious because, HMI made clear, "all young people, not just those intending to follow careers in science, must be scientifically literate".

Authorities acknowledged that teaching science to the youngest children through environmental studies had not been a success and accepted the guidelines had to be reviewed to clarify the position of science.

Ms Alexander said the strategy would be backed by collating spending on science across all the Executive's departments, although it was not clear if this meant additional funds would be available. Official estimates are that spending on science will have increased by 15 per cent to pound;1 billion between 1999-2003.

Sir William Stewart, president of the RSE and former UK chief scientific adviser, welcomed the moves. But the Association of University Teachers warned that job security for 5,000 research staff on contract in Scotland's universities would have to be improved if scientific work was to attract and retain talent.

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Neil Munro

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