Science: a suitable case for treatment

8th October 2004 at 01:00
It's time to buckle down, behave like grown-ups and co-operate to find solutions, says John Richardson

I'm suffering from a surfeit of surveys. I have read too many depressing reports. Death by diagnosis looms when intensive care is needed. I refer to my overladen shelves of reports and papers on the imminent demise of science education.

The latest gloom was shed by a survey by the Save British Science Society (TESS, September 17). Allergy and irritation began with a sensationalist Save British Science press release. This trailed the publication of its report, purporting to summarise major findings. In tabloid fashion, it quoted: "73 per cent of teachers described the funds available for larger (not defined) items of lab equipment as less than adequate" (also not defined).

It did so while neglecting to qualify the 73 per cent with the fact that only 16 per cent of Scottish science teachers actually responded to the survey. It is such abuses of statistics that have given a bad name to some of the science the society wants to save. It provides ammunition to all those who say that the real need lies in saving society from science.

Among the debris, there were a few nuggets. Appreciation of such raw lumps takes a sense of irony and paradox. Space precludes a cataloguing of all of the good, sound points made by the teachers. Some may even offer ways out of that morass wherein too much policy means little action. What we have is not really a policy bog but a petty political minefield, a landscape littered with rocks and hard places.

The good news is that science teachers are again giving thought to such matters, identifying many of the real issues and pointing to ways forward.

Take teacher complaints that some authorities or schools seem covert and capricious in their budgetary and managerial decisions (as well as in matters affecting school organisation and building design). Such shortcomings - in openness or accountability, and a lack of action based on rational policies - were revealed in an earlier, and superior, study by Stuart Farmer.

Since Farmer's work was carried out, the Scottish Executive Education Department has done its quiet best, using a sample of authorities, to track the fate of science strategy funds. The evidence suggests that most, if not all, education authorities are now devolving those moneys to schools (although secondary colleagues sometimes forget the primary sector where there are also significant needs in science).

One education officer with responsibility for science (and far too much besides - another key issue) said that, of course, he devolves the funds.

It's a hassle-free option at a time when hassle is not scarce. When the moneys do get into schools, they may be diverted by headteachers to meet the conflicting demands of stretched budgets and overlapping rings of fences.

Ironies abound. The Executive has to eschew "one size fits all" policies, and be "flexible and responsive to local need". It then gets slated if it cannot trace every last bawbee into every single school frae Stranraer to Stornoway. External experts (people who know all about education policy because they once went to school) tell us to devolve every penny and "let headteachers make the decisions". The evidence is that in some schools that could spell disaster for any revival in science and technology education.

We need first to get school managers signed up to science. Several of the teachers surveyed said that science should be a "core" subject. None of them had a convincing case for this, yet such a case can easily be made.

There is a critical need for science to be seen as serious about earning a civilising, curricular crust.

The teachers interviewed by Save British Science also seemed ready for reform. They complained about the policy of "minimum change" within Higher Still. Strangely, this was a policy made necessary by the Realpolitik of workload and pressure from unions, of which many of those same teachers were presumably members. Similarly, imagine the concerns of Scottish Qualifications Authority science officers, disquieted in private about good science teachers not getting weans to think, while senior officials in the SQA seem content to assess pupils' memories.

But if serious, radical reform gets under way as part, say, of a comprehensive 3-18 curriculum review, will the Scotsman again ready its brickbats and dust off its dumbing down editorials?

I am tired of diagnoses. Knowing what has gone wrong, and broadly what to do about it, should constitute 10 per cent of any sensible strategy. We have those bits, in spades. It is time to buckle down, behave like grown-ups, recognise the realities, co-operate to find solutions and improve matters. It is the hard slog that makes up 90 per cent of achieving any worthwhile and lasting reform.

And, it's aye the jobs we never start that take the longest.

John Richardson is director of projects at the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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