A touch of alchemy

14th September 2001 at 01:00
A strategy marking the way ahead for Scottish science aims to improve competence and confidence in classrooms and spread good practice, reports Douglas Blane

At the moment, Scottish children's attainment in science languishes in the bottom half of international comparisons. This is not for any obvious lack of knowledge or effort among teachers. What has been missing is a clear vision of the goals for Scottish science and a coherent strategy with detailed tactics on how to achieve them.

Last week, after a lengthy gestation, the Scottish Executive delivered its Science Strategy for Scotland. It sets out a vision but the tactics may take a little longer.

As an attempt to bring vision and coherence to research, commercialisation, education, public understanding and the use of science in government policy, the document's ambitions are impressive. If it manages to do a fraction of what it wants to, it will be no mean achievement.

It proposes a new post of chief scientific adviser and an enhanced role for the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Both of these will raise the profile of Scottish science and help it to establish its own voice. There is also a commitment to direct resources for fields in which Scottish scientists are among the world leaders, namely bioscience and genomics, medical research and e-science.

The strategy lists 10 commitments to school science (see panel, far right), the most important of which are the improvement of confidence and competence among primary teachers, updating secondary teachers' knowledge and skills and providing better accommodation and resources in the classroom. These were critical issues highlighted in recent schools Inspectorate reports.

Teachers' response to the strategy has been mixed. Most welcome the acknowledgement of their problems, but want more detail on the proposed solutions.

Susan Burr, secretary of the Association for Science Education in Scotland and principal teacher of biology at Kyle Academy in Ayr, says: "I feel very positive. We're moving forward and there are a lot of good ideas in there.

"It's essential that funds should go into science departments, not just into schools or local authorities. Without an injection of cash into school science, none of this is going to work. If the departments aren't well resourced, classroom science won't be exciting, kids won't carry on with it after Standard grade, they won't go to university to read science and we won't have enough teachers or scientists.

"You've got to start the ball rolling and unless we do something about school science I think the whole cause is lost."

There is little information about funding at this stage, but the Scottish Executive confidently states that school science is one area where it can take a range of actions. Since education accounts for the largest chunk of its total science expenditure, high expectations seem justified.

Another concern of science teachers is how to build on existing good practice. The Scottish Executive Education Department last week chaired a meeting which discussed a collaborative project - thought to be worth pound;2.5 million - to provide teachers with an array of 5-14 science materials.

The meeting brought together representatives of the Scottish Science Advisory Group, the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre, Learning and Teaching Scotland, the local authorities, the schools Inspectorate, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and the National Grid for Learning.

An Executive spokesman said: "ICT will be the key mechanism for the development and delivery of these resources I and an announcement on details of costs and scope of the project will be made in the near future."

Clarification is needed with regard to deliverable aims and timescales, but there seems little doubt that it will go ahead and that it will lead to improvements in the materials available for teachers.

John Richardson, executive director of SSERC, says: "We are not talking about producing a course that would be another great doorstopper. It would be a programme of exemplar materials looking at key ideas in science and the misconceptions people have about them. These would be explained in simple English and connected to a bank of questions.

"We would take account of what has been learned about children's cognitive development, and some of the things we know teachers are interested in, like critical skills and thinking skills.

"We'll tap into what people have already done and learn from good practice wherever we find it. If there are good ideas south of the border, we'll borrow them. Through the SSAG network we will tap into all 32 Scottish authorities. There's a lot of expertise and good material out there already, in North Lanarkshire, Glasgow, Renfrewshire, the Borders. We'll use that, look for gaps and work on the presentation. It's not going to be a matter of teachers hanging around for years and being handed a package from on high."

When it comes to continuing professional development for secondary teachers, one highly regarded project is the biotechnology summer school at Edinburgh University, which grew from work done by pupils and teachers at Dollar Academy. But there were no commitments about professional development in the science strategy because it is wrapped up in the general national review of CPD.

Assessment is another hot topic simply mentioned in the strategy. Drawing on evidence from school inspections as well as international comparisons and studies of good practice, HM Inspectors concluded in the 1999 report Improving Science Education 5-14 that national testing in science could greatly improve the quality of learning and teaching. The area of assessment is actively under consideration and the Executive is not prepared at present to expand on this.

"We did wonder if that meant national testing," says David Lawson, Glasgow City's science adviser and chairman of the Scottish Science Advisory Group. "A lot of people would be happy if it did - I would myself.

"Admittedly there are good and bad points. If you have national testing, people will teach to the test, there is no doubt. So the trick is to make sure you're assessing the learning outcomes that are really important, which doesn't happen with some courses. If you get it right you do get attainment raised, but it might be a hard thing to get right in science, particularly with the current guidelines."

Opportunities to modernise science accommodation and equipment in schools can present themselves in a number of ways, the Scottish Executive points out. The strategy says: "Public-private partnerships clearly provide a major opportunity, but there are other funding streams available to local authorities for modernising science facilities, including the recently announced School Buildings Improvement Fund."

Some teachers expressed concern that the new science group being set up under the aegis of the Royal Society of Edinburgh could easily turn out to be university-focused and elitist and that school science might become peripheral.

Sir William Stewart, president of the RSE and the British Association, and former chief scientific adviser to the UK Government, tells TES Scotland:

"For the first time ever we've got a framework for Scottish science that we can build on for the future.

"I don't believe that a committee in Edinburgh is going to resolve all the issues. My view is that the way forward is to identify areas that need attention and then to communicate with people. You have to get out into schools, for example, and talk to the teachers.

"The chair of the committee, the new chief adviser on science to the Executive, is the person to speak to about this, when we make the appointment in October. But I certainly think it would be a retrograde step if wide consultation wasn't the way ahead."

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