Network of knowledge

4th March 2005 at 00:00
York is a long way but there are plans to build strong links to the UK's heart of science learning, says Douglas Blane

The National Science Learning Centre, scheduled to open in the autumn, will be a wonderful resource for science teachers. Fitted with sophisticated laboratories and the latest conference facilities, it will deliver courses on all aspects of modern science, on effective teaching strategies and on topical issues of science in society.

Features will include a pond with reed beds, amphitheatre seating for external demonstrations, a greenhouse area, a geothermal heating system and an adjacent residential block for 68.

Teachers who attend will gain knowledge and understanding, expertise with advanced technology and proficiency with new and effective teaching strategies. On returning to the classroom, they will be better equipped to convey the excitement of modern science to pupils, boost their science literacy and improve their understanding of ethical issues of scientific developments.

There is just one small problem. This marvellous facility for UK teachers and support staff, funded with pound;25 million from the Wellcome Trust, is being built in York.

This will be less of a hardship to science teachers south of the border because the Department for Education and Skills has chipped in pound;26 million to launch regional science learning centres all over England, in London, Hatfield, Southampton, Bristol, Leicester, Keele, Manchester, Sheffield and - closest to Scotland - Durham.

The ambitious aim of this innovative network of science centres is to provide professional development to teachers, technicians and classroom assistants that will help the country "lead the world in science education by 2015".

However, these developments could create a disparity in opportunities for teachers in England and Scotland. So various options are being discussed to help Scottish schools benefit too.

These broadly comprise sending science teachers to attend courses run at the national centre, tweaked perhaps to remove references to key stages; developing courses there specifically for Scottish teachers; or devolving a measure of responsibility by allowing courses to be run in Scotland for Scotland's teachers.

The progress in science learning and teaching made in the past three years in Scotland - and now beginning to manifest itself in pupil achievement - means the devolved option would be building on excellent foundations.

A significant development was the announcement a month ago that the Scottish Executive is giving pound;330,000 over two years to a project to enhance and co-ordinate science teachers' professional development. A consortium led by the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre aims to build on the best existing CPD and develop strong links with York and the network of science centres.

"We see that as a very important part of the project, and one that will grow as time goes on," says the SSERC's chief executive, Fred Young. "They have excellent resources and we want to make sure Scottish teachers and support staff have access to them.

"At the same time, they are very interested in what we have been doing - the projects, the summer schools for teachers, the workshops and high quality CPD for Improving Science Education 5-14."

John Richardson, the SSERC's director of projects, will lead the initiative, which will also offer an annual conference highlighting good practice, residential summer schools and practical workshops for teachers all over Scotland.

The bid for the project came from a partnership of the SSERC, the Development to Update School Chemistry Project, the Science and Plants for Schools Biotechnology Scotland Project and the Scottish Institute for Biotechnology Education. While tendering was competitive, its implementation will be highly collaborative, says Mr Young.

"We want to work now with anyone who has an interest in high quality CPD.

We won't be going around telling people what to do. We will be providing support, and helping to develop good practice around the country."

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