Editorial - Appliance of science must be fit for all

4th December 2009 at 00:00
We need to formulate a curriculum that suits budding Newtons and sciencephobes alike

No Kepler, Boyle or Murphy has yet formulated a law to explain when concern over the science curriculum reaches a critical mass. But so regular are the outbursts and so predictable the trajectories, it can only be a matter of time before some bright spark figures it out.

The latest explosions centre on the think-tank Reform's claim that science qualifications are seriously flawed. Whatever the organisation's political bias, its concerns about the quality of science education, the numbers of pupils studying it and the high level of scientific illiteracy are widely shared.

Research for the Wellcome Trust may have found that scrapping national tests in Wales has led to more satisfying science lessons in Year 6, and that fewer primary pupils are turned off the subject as a result. But when it comes to GCSE and A-level, the picture has been less encouraging over the past decade, in Wales and the rest of the UK. The Royal Society of Chemistry has warned of a "catastrophic slippage" in standards, but are standards so terrible? (See page 7.)

Knowledge of grammar is essential to the proper use of English. But is a reader's engagement with Pride and Prejudice lessened by an inability to parse? If they were tempted to emulate Jane Austen, should they know how to conjugate before they attempted to write, or should a would-be author let their imagination fly regardless? Most people would probably answer "No" to the first question, and "Yes" to the second - but either case is arguable.

The questions science faces are similar. How do you impart the basics and switch on a child's imagination to the wonders of science? Serious scientists must know their mathematics and the physical laws. But only a minority of pupils will be serious scientists. Even for them, it's a fair bet that periodic explosions rather than periodic tables make more of an impact. And it is surely better to engage the majority with "pub science" than with none at all.

Do we need more scientists? Twenty years ago Russia was churning out more scientists than the rest of Europe combined. Well, that investment really paid off for the Soviets. The CBI now claims we have too few. Yet, as one university vice-chancellor pointed out recently, the number of employed science graduates aged 25-34 in the UK is almost double that of the US. Indeed, the going rate for a PhD-qualified scientist is about #163;29,000 a year - approximately the same as a London-based maths teacher. If there were a shortage, wouldn't the market reflect it?

The new science curriculum, whatever its limitations, is more subtle and flexible than critics allow. That is not to say it cannot be improved. But it is worth bearing in mind that there is not one audience for science but several. Consequently, there will always be a tension between rigour and relevance. We must hope that whichever government is in power leaves it to the profession to figure that one out and develop qualifications accordingly. The omens - even the computer forecasted ones - are not good.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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