Letters extra : 'Desert'ing Science

1st August 2003 at 01:00

On the same day that The THES reports the desertification of our science learning landscape (Science dies out in English 'deserts', THES 11703) the TES informs us that "Tomlinson announces that maths is not a must" (11703, p10), in the proposed new baccalaureate. In fact the headline is unfair because "Mike Tomlinson has good news for those sixth-formers who feared compulsory English and maths". That there is a relationship between poor take up of mathematics and science subjects at ASA2 is beyond doubt. However, the TES title reveals a more sinister malaise in England. Studying mathematics (and science) is not the most attractive option in the marketplace of educational courses. Moreover, innumeracy still lacks the social stigma that illiteracy does. It would be hard to imagine the TES having lead with "Tomlinson announces that English is not a must".

The late Pierre Bourdieu wrote of "the logic of furious competition which dominates the school institution, especially the effect of a final verdict or destiny that the educational system exerts over teenagers. Often with a psychological brutality that nothing can attenuate, the school institution lays down its final judgements and its verdicts, from which there is no appeal, ranking all students in a unique heirarchy of all forms of excellence, nowadays dominated by a single discipline, mathematics." (Practical Reason, p 28) That our society has a problem with mathematics and science is clear. The challenge is how to change public perceptions, and clinging to the notions of mathematics as a more difficult discipline will continue to affect take up rates, perpetrating the role of GCSE and A level mathematics qualifications as social gatekeepers. So if as a society we cannot undo our "it's ok to be bad at maths" attitude then maths and science courses will continue to 'sell' badly. Moreover, these culturally embedded dispositions to maths and science will have a long-term impact and will take a long time to undo.

Andy Noyes
School of Education

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