A shortage of science teachers who are teaching their specialist subject is the “biggest challenge” facing schools in England, according to the president of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Sir John Holman, speaking to Tes as he launched a report about the state of practical science in secondary schools in England, also said he had learned from high-performing countries that practical science work was more important than ever in the digital age.
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The 'biggest challenge'
The “biggest challenge for England” is that too many science teachers are teaching outside their specialism, Sir John said.
He said teachers with specialist qualifications are more confident and more prepared to do experiments than if they were not specialised.
However, he said that while this was a “perennial issue, we must not admit defeat”, and said the answer was to be “more strategic” and “more positive”.
“What do I mean by that? Suppose a school is finding it very difficult to get a physics specialist, but has biology specialists teaching physics.
“In the long-term they can use professional development, particularly through the Stem learning centres, to train up their biology graduates so they will be skilled for teaching physics.”
He added that the government also needed to “stick to the programme of bursaries and ways of incentivising people to go into science teaching”.
How healthy is science education in English schools?
Asked how he judged the quality of science education in the UK, Sir John said: “I think it measures up pretty well by international standards.”
He said there is a “sweet spot” where countries in the international Pisa rankings perform above average in the science rankings, but also have stronger than average ability to think scientifically, and above average interest in a scientific career. He said the UK was one of only seven countries in that position.
He said his “headline summary” is that “we are doing pretty well”.
World class science practicals?
Despite his overall optimism, Sir John’s report finds that schools in England are “well short of achieving world-class practical science” when measured again 10 benchmarks.
Should parents be concerned that no schools in a survey met more than seven of his 10 benchmarks, and about a third do not meet any?
“It would be surprising if there wasn’t room for improvement, but I think it’s pretty encouraging when you consider that these are world standards. One thing we tried was relaxing the benchmarks a little, so that instead of saying this would happen all the time, we would say this would happen for the large majority of the time, and when you do that, you find that quite a lot of schools are on their way.”
He said that 92 per cent of schools achieve at least one benchmark when they are relaxed a little.
“There’s a long to go to get all of our schools to these standards, but they are world-class standards.”
Can schools afford to meet the benchmarks?
How practical is it for schools to meet the benchmarks, given the funding pressures they are under?
“In principle, schools have got a lot of autonomy, so what we are saying is that the additional costs actually are not that great,” Sir John said.
“Why is that? The labs have been built, and more schools are pretty well equipped by international standards for labs and equipment.
“The teachers have been employed and most of the costs of doing good practical work are the teachers. Since they have been employed, and they are there on the timetable, the decision to do a little more practical work does not have serious cost implications for schools.
“It is really about the school using their autonomy to choose the kind of teaching activity, rather than us calling for an enormous additional investment.”
Is practical work being sacrificed?
The report calls on the government to review the whole set of accountability measures, including league tables and Ofsted, which it finds is reducing the practical science work done by pupils in key stages 4 and 5.
Sir John said: “[The government] should look at the whole picture relative to other countries, and ask the question whether we are making some sacrifices in the way we teach and learn as a result of our very strong accountability system.”
Asked whether schools in England were indeed sacrificing practice science because of this, he said: “Let’s put it this way: when we visited schools overseas, we rarely heard teachers and students talk about the exams that they were about to take, and it did not appear to have any formative influence on the teaching that was being done and the learning activities.
“When you visit schools in England, you do find that students are very conscious of the impending exams.”
Practical work in the digital age
Sir John visited six countries or territories that perform well in science in the international Pisa rankings.
He said: “I sort of expected we might find practical work was possibly on the decline because of digital technology, and that highly technological nations like Singapore and Massachusetts would be replacing hands-on practical work with computers. That is not what is happening.
“We often asked the teachers do you think you are doing more or less practical work than you used to. The commonest answer was “more”.
“I think that in a world where you can get so many virtual and digital experiences, it becomes more important to get the authentic hands-on experience, and I think schools are responding to that by recognising that hands-on practical science is even more important than it always was.”