New bid to make science cool

17th January 2003 at 00:00
THE Scottish Executive is poised to announce yet more cash to counter science's "image" problem among pupils.

Despite the additional money, however, many schools have still to feel the full impact of the pound;8 million handed out last year as part of the "Scottish science strategy".

But Jack Jackson, the leading HMI for science, said the funding has led to "significant improvements, particularly in equipping schools for science 5-14".

A TES Scotland report this week suggests that education authorities which have retained specialist science advisers, such as Glasgow and Scottish Borders, have been able to capitalise on the extra funds.

According to the Scottish Science Advisory Group, the person responsible for co-ordinating science has no control over science strategy funding, and in certain cases is not even consulted on how it should be spent.

The Association of Science Education (ASE) says different authorities have different approaches, with the result that the benefits across the country have been "patchy".

Some have passed on the full amounts to headteachers who have made all of it available to science departments. Other heads are said to have transferred the cash to departments but clawed it back in reduced per capita budgets.

There have also been reports that some headteachers, told to spend the money on equipment, have allocated it to general ICT instead.

The money was channelled through education authorities, rather than handed directly to schools as in England, a constant running sore with Scottish heads.

John Richardson, chief executive of the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre (SSERC), acknowledged that the Executive is "between a rock and a hard place". Mr Richardson said: "It doesn't want to be seen to be bypassing education authorities or dictating how the money should be spent, yet giving headteachers discretion inevitably means that it will be spent differently in different places."

There has also been criticism of the fact that of pound;8 million, pound;5 million appeared last January, late in the financial year for schools and equipment suppliers. The rest was better timed, in May, and was largely spent on continuing professional development - a major priority, particularly in primaries.

One authority, Argyll and Bute, only passed the money to its schools two weeks ago.

Stuart Farmer, a former chair of the ASE, said the pound;8 million was "scratching the surface" - the equivalent of just over pound;20,000 per secondary school.

Mr Farmer, head of physics at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen, conducted a survey of more than 100 secondaries two years ago which found that the average school spent only pound;1,936 on equipment for physics departments the previous session, against the pound;12,950 recommended by the SSERC.

Mr Richardson admitted that school science had an "image problem" among pupils as dull and content-driven. The "informal curri-culum" to which they are exposed, in the form of television, the internet and new science centres, was seen as much more exciting. Outdated equipment, 25 years old in many cases, did not help.

Mr Richardson pointed to the irony that pupils have benefited instead from modern business studies and computer suites, "kit which we wouldn't have in the first place if it was not for science".

He said urgent action was necessary to stop pupils deserting science, which means fewer students taking it at university just as more teachers will be needed as the existing workforce retires.

Under the microscope, ScotlandPlus, page 5

DUSTY AS AN OLD HOOVER

David Lawson, science adviser in Glasgow, says:"Few of us would use a domestic appliance bought 30 years ago, but a lot of apparatus in school labs is that old. Even if it is in good order, it sells an image to youngsters that science is old and dusty and not cool."

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