Bring on the science specialists

28th October 2005 at 01:00
Careful nurturing of expertise in individual disciplines is vital to the future of the UK, writes Professor John Holman

Extraordinary things are happening in science. Within the lifetime of today's pupils, medicine will become tailored to each individual's genome; chemists will make nanoparticles to carry drugs to exactly where they are needed; and physicists will open the way for quantum computing that will make silicon chips seem big and slow.

The implications of such scientific advances for people's lives are profound, and the need for universal scientific literacy has never been greater. For the UK to continue to take a world lead in such developments will require a supply of young people who want to continue their study of science to A-level and beyond.

Yet an international survey at the University of Oslo has found that in the UK and across the developed nations, students acknowledge the importance of science for people's lives, but by and large do not want to study it beyond their compulsory schooling. "Important, but not for me" seems to be the message.

Many factors contribute to this situation. They include the curriculum and assessment, the relative difficulty of getting high grades in science, and the sheer range of other curriculum attractions on offer. But more than anything, the answer lies with science teachers. For the first part of secondary schooling, science is usually taught as a single subject. This makes it easy to forget the importance of the separate scientific disciplines: physics, chemistry and biology, not to mention earth science, psychology and others.

In some ways, this does not matter too much: teachers are trained to teach across the sciences to the end of key stage 4, and many modern curriculums are designed to be taught, in part at least, as an integrated whole. But in other ways, subject specialists are crucial. A specialist physicist has the depth of knowledge needed to answer the probing questions that bright students may ask. A specialist chemist has the confidence to demonstrate the spectacular reactions that awaken jaded students' interest. A specialist biologist has a fund of stories about the strange plants, animals and diseases that make the study of the living world so fascinating.

Yet many schools consider themselves lucky if they have a single graduate physicist on their staff. There are ways around the shortages. The new Twenty-first Century Science course, for example, offers an additional science option designed for those who are interested in taking their science on to A-level, and another option for those whose interest in science is more vocational. Schools that are short of specialist staff can play to their strengths by deploying staff to the most appropriate group.

But these are not ideal answers. Measures are needed to recruit and retain specialist science staff. High-quality continuing professional development of the kind the National Science Learning Centre provides helps teachers to update their subject knowledge and hone their teaching skills. But we also need measures to improve recruitment.

Some of the heads I speak to advocate a kind of National Service whereby all science graduates would spend some time in schools. Maybe this is a bit extreme, but more should be made of schemes such as Undergraduate Ambassadors, which encourages undergraduates to support science teachers in the classroom, supplying strong role models for students whose interest in science may be wavering. This scheme needs support, as does the graduate teaching programme, whereby science graduates at bachelor or PhD level who are impatient to start earning can go straight into schools and learn on the job.

Then there is pay. Good science graduates have many job opportunities to choose from, and although teachers' pay has risen significantly, it cannot compete with lucrative opportunities in the banking or IT industries. Nor do maintained schools easily compete with the salaries and conditions in independent schools. In the end, the problem of recruiting and retaining high-quality science graduates to schools may only be solved by paying them more.

There is a strong resistance at many levels to the idea of differential pay, but slowly this is changing. One approach might be to create a special "science recruitment fund", perhaps held by a neutral body such as the Royal Society into which schools could bid for funds to top up their own in order to recruit the best science graduates.

Having recruited them, there needs to be good-quality professional development available to help retain good teachers. And of course, recruiting and retaining the best science graduates creates positive feedback, inspiring the new generation of scientists, some of whom will help maintain the UK's position at the leading edge of scientific research, and some of whom will themselves provide the next generation of inspiring science teachers.

Professor John Holman is director of the National Science Learning Centre at the University of York and a former secondary headteacher

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