Science for the people

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Science specialists tend to be interested in their subject rather than in people and they do not enjoy working with children. Or so Professor Alan Smithers candidly - perhaps bravely - told the annual meeting of the Association for Science Education in Birmingham this week. His analysis (page 1) of the way specialised science courses filter out certain personalities - and even social classes - with consequential impact on the numbers and quality of graduates prepared to teach science, is cogent enough, even if the winners of this year's TESASE Science Teacher of the Year awards (page 17 and Science Extra page VII) provide vivid evidence that it is not always so.

For the third year running the award has identified outstanding teachers who demonstrate the liveliness to be found in the laboratory; that lab is not synonymous with drab and that scientists can teach children as well as science. And no one attending the ASE extravaganza this week - the largest assembly of subject specialists of its kind in the country - could doubt science teachers' commitment to work with one another. Furthermore, they can point to the magnificent achievement of science for all; in little more than ten years we have moved from the position where only one in five pupils took a physical science O-level to one where more than 4 out of five take GCSE physics or double-award science.

That commitment is not continued into the sixth form, however, where specialisation in science has more than halved. But, Alan Smithers maintains, there is no general shortage of scientists and engineers in Britain; we are unable to employ in science all the graduates we do produce. All the more worrying, then, that the serious shortfall of maths and science teachers continues and those who are recruited are less well qualified than in other mainstream subjects.

Smithers's solutions deserve attention: a broader, five-subject sixth-form course to bring more people-oriented students through to the sciences; clearer demarcation between the scientific literacy which everybody needs and the more advanced courses required to produce a smaller number of science specialists; and in-service training based in science rather than education departments to increase teachers' job satisfaction.

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