Jack McConnell wants to turn six secondary schools in Scotland into selective science academies for S5 and S6 pupils, so that the brightest and best pupils are given opportunities to develop their potential.
His proposal, which is likely to form part of the Scottish Labour Party's manifesto, is based on research carried out for the Scottish Executive's "Futures Project", aimed at identifying the skills Scotland needs in the coming decades to compete globally. One finding is that it is high-skill performance in the sciences that will make the difference to future economic growth.
It is unclear whether Labour wants to extend specialist academy provision beyond existing schools in dance, music and sport and, after the Scottish elections, science. However, leading university scientists have expressed concern that the First Minister is focusing on the wrong age group.
Professor John Coggins, member of the Scottish Science Advisory Committee and author of the influential STEM report on the school to university transition in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, said the priority should be investing in the science curriculum to make it more attractive to younger pupils. He called for more investment in high-quality continuing professional development for teachers to help them keep up to date with developments.
Targeting science academies for upper secondaries could well be leaving it too late, he warned: "I don't want to be hostile to Mr McConnell if he's trying to do something about science. But the best use of resources would be to invest more in the curriculum review with respect to science to ensure that the science courses are more attractive and fit for purpose."
His fear was that creating six selective scientific centres of excellence would simply attract pupils who wanted to study medicine or veterinary medicine at university, since these courses require five A passes at Higher, preferably in sciences: "These elite science schools have existed in Europe, for example, in Germany, for a long time. I'm not sure they're successful."
However, Mr McConnell is motivated by the belief that the chances of more young people studying science will be increased if they come together to do so. His support for science academies was reinforced by a visit to the United States in the last fortnight, where he toured top-performing science academies. Science academies would, he believes, get round the potential problem of having insufficient teachers to offer the sciences at advanced levels in every school.
He envisages schools and local authorities competing to host a new science academy. Pupils would specialise in the Higher and Advanced Higher curriculum for physics, chemistry and biology, with biology being given a particular focus in the light of Scotland's strong and emerging life sciences and bio-engineering industry.
Other education sources are less sanguine. One pointed out that Mr McConnell's original vision for Scotland's schools of ambition was closely modelled on the English city academy template, which had a heavier reliance on private sponsorship and operated outwith education authority control.
Teaching unions in England have warned that city academies are likely to skew fair admissions policies and undermine the comprehensive ethos.
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