Boffins fear for school science

21st November 2003 at 00:00
A call for urgent action to halt the decline in school science was made this week by the Scottish Science Advisory Committee.

The committee, which is funded by the Scottish Executive to advise ministers on their science strategy, makes 23 recommendations and says that the most pressing need is for improvements in primary science and in the bridge between primary and secondary.

The syllabus for S1 and S2 is described as "poorly defined", although the report acknowledges that the national initiative on improving 5-14 science is likely to make a difference. Generally the science curriculum at all stages is criticised as "very crowded".

"It is vital to improve the experience primary school pupils have of science and to make sure that their interest in science is sustained and developed across the primary-secondary transition," the report states.

"This will help to ensure that they will choose to study science subjects at Standard and Higher grade and continue with these studies at college or university."

The committee believes Scotland's economic fortunes could be undermined if young people continue to snub science. Figures show a steady decline in numbers taking science subjects at Higher level in the eight years to 2001.

In chemistry, candidates fell from 10.8 per cent of the year group in 1993-94 to 9.2 per cent, in physics from 10.4 per cent to 9 per cent, and in biology from 7.6 per cent to 6.6 per cent.

Professor John Coggins of Glasgow University, who chaired the committee's working group on the report, commented: "It is crucial that early interests in science are fully supported from primary school and even pre-school stages of education. We want to see science taught using investigative, hands-on approaches from the early stages, so that pupils have an appreciation of scientific thinking and methodology."

The report's recommendations are wide-ranging, from a reward scheme to attract science graduates into teaching to better equipped laboratories and science rooms, especially in primaries. It calls for the current restrictions to be relaxed so that secondary science teachers can deliver the subject in primaries and it suggests that primary-trained specialists may be needed in the longer term.

It expresses concern that existing problems could be exacerbated by a recruitment crisis - a third of science teachers are aged over 50 and more than half are over 45. "Within a few years, it is predicted that there will be a significant shortage of teachers in the physical sciences, especially in physics and soon afterwards in chemistry."

Scottish Executive figures on teacher supply point to a need for 357 newly qualified chemistry staff between now and 2008, with another 210 in physics and 127 in biology. But the report warns ministers that "there has been insufficient effort to recruit younger teachers ahead of the impending rush of retirements".

The committee welcomes the pound;18 million already earmarked for equipment and teacher support but adds that "further direct investments in science infrastructure are required for a more engaging and effective approach to the experimental aspects of modern science. "Increased technical support in schools will encourage teachers to introduce a wider range of practical activities. This will give pupils a more stimulating learning experience."

The report acknowledges that school science may have been hit by an image problem as a result of controversies over ethical issues and the perception of science subjects as difficult. "Lack of modern, state-of-the-art teaching facilities further exacerbates the situation."

In response, the Executive points to improvements in hand as a result of its pound;18 million investment to date, its 5-14 reforms and its pledge to recruit another 3,000 teachers by 2007.

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