Maths and science need action now

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Writer Simon Singh urges ministers to tackle crisis. Warwick Mansell reports.

The Government was accused today of failing to heed expert warnings that a crisis is facing maths and science teaching in schools across Britain.

Simon Singh, one of the country's foremost science writers, said that ministers were not doing enough to address chronic teacher shortages, which threaten the subjects and put economic prosperity at risk.

His warnings follow government responses this summer to two lengthy official inquiries into maths and science, which examine the dearth of subject specialist teachers.

Ministers announced new centres for excellent teaching in the subjects, removal of the limit on advanced skills teachers' salaries and a pledge to come nearer to hitting recruitment targets.

But Dr Singh said he had struggled to find any sense of urgency in the response to the Smith report on maths teaching from Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary.

"I don't see a recognition that this is a massive crisis," he said. "I'm not quite sure what the Government is going to do to turn this around."

Ministers captured headlines with a pledge to pay the best maths teachers in excess of pound;50,000 when they announced their response. But, as The TES reported, the moves on pay will affect only advanced skills teachers, around 2 per cent of staff. Ministers will not pay teachers more than pound;50,000 but are giving schools the flexibility to do so.

Dr Singh said he was not convinced more pay in itself was the answer. But nor did he think other initiatives were the solution.

He said: "The Government has to do more than just build a centre for excellent maths teaching, or science teaching. Anyone can put up a building.

"Neither that, nor looking at, say, changes in the curriculum, will answer the fundamental problem, which is getting more people into teaching."

Dr Singh, the author of Fermat's Last Theorem, a bestselling account of the solving of one of the most elusive problems in maths, visits dozens of schools a year. He said he regularly met "wonderful" science teachers, but was also confronted by horrendous tales of recruitment difficulties. One secondary school he visited did not have a single qualified science teacher.

He said there were no easy answers but he wanted the Government to embark on a detailed, five-year study of recruitment patterns in, say, 50 schools to get a true picture of the difficulties they faced.

He also attacked the teaching of creationism in some school science lessons as "just dreadful". Emmanuel college, in Gateshead, teaches creationism alongside evolutionary theory.

Dr Singh said: "We don't teach Einstein in RE. So why teach religion in science?"

His comments will be particularly bruising for ministers, as he is not a habitual critic. Dr Singh said he supported much of the Government's record, including primary school reform and its investment in the infrastructure of science.

The criticisms coincided with the publication of his latest book, Big Bang, an account of the birth of the universe, the history of cosmology and the development of the scientific method.

Science funding, Friday magazine 20

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