Formula for hope

1st December 2000 at 00:00
PUPILS' GRASP of science has long been a concern, especially when set along standards of attainment in other countries. But this week's brace of reports - from the regular Assessment of Achievement Programme and the HMI summation of five years' school observations - suggests that, even for pessimists, concern should not convert to panic.

The inspectors, who are always careful in their praise, find much to commend in the nation's science departments. And the AAP records that if things are not much better, at least they are much the same, with some of the fall-off between 1993 and 1996 being recovered.

The inspectors' worries are familiar. They transcend subjects and centre on S1-S2. The AAP likewise finds that fewer pupils meet 5-14 targets in S2 than in P4 or P7 - unsurprising, as the tail of underachievers will tend to grow year by year.

Which makes another of the HMI findings interestng. Science teachers work more effectively with S3-S6 than with younger pupils, whose prior experience in primary they ignore and whose capabilities they underestimate. That the HMI are broadly satisfied with performance from Standard grade to Certificate of Sixth Year Studies is the more remarkable in view of the S1-S2 problems.

Able pupils are insufficiently stretched early in secondary, a phenomenon not yet properly addressed. Yet the percentage of candidates gaining an A band pass in physics - who will contribute to the pool of future first-class honours graduates and research students - has risen in five years from 16 to 22. There is hope for science in this country!

The HMIs' severest criticisms are about lack of staff development and opportunities for updating of knowledge. The pot of resources post-McCrone had better be deep if it is to satisfy that need among many others.

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