Is science too stodgy?

8th September 1995 at 01:00
You do not need to be the Astronomer Royal (see page 2) to foresee that Britain faces a dismal future in a technological world if it neglects the teaching of maths and science. Launching the British Association's annual festival of science and technology, Sir Martin Rees once again focuses public angst on the continuing unpopularity of these subjects.

It was hoped that making them compulsory to the age of 16 would encourage more students to opt thereafter for the numerate sciences. Though over 80 per cent now achieve GCSEs in science and maths by the end of year 11 and staying on rates have risen, A-level entries for maths and physics have continued to spiral downwards. The greater numbers staying on beyond 16 mostly opt for the arts and humanities.

Though Sir Martin concentrated on one aspect, at least three factors are involved in this reluctance to sign up for science. One is undoubtedly our failure, revealed by international comparisons, to equip enough 16 year olds with an adequate grasp of mathematics. Whether maths standards have risen or fallen - the question to be argued in The TES education debate at the BA - too few achieve the standard required at GCSE to enable them to continue with the maths and physics needed for most science and technology careers.

Neglect of traditional teaching methods is blamed by Dr Tony Gardiner (TES2 page 5) though in the heyday of such methods even fewer achieved what was supposed to be the equivalent of today's grades A to C GCSE. What certainly is true, however, is that without higher expectations of what all pupils should achieve in maths, no methods - old or new - are likely to succeed in raising standards.

The foundations of universal mathematical competence need to be firmly laid in the primary school where in the past teaching of maths was notoriously weak and physical science virtually non-existent. It remains to be seen whether the national curriculum has spurred the in-service support and development primary teachers needed. There is still plenty of room for major investment in the mathematical and scientific awareness, competence and enthusiasm of all primary teachers if they in turn are to impart these to their pupils.

Another factor is the 5 to 16 curriculum itself. The maths and science required by law may provide a sound factual basis for further study; but does it also show pupils some of the challenge and excitement reflected in the BA's annual carnival? What account is taken of what it is that interests - or can be made to interest - young people who are increasingly acting as discriminating consumers when it comes to making choices at 16.

Tony Gardiner, puts his faith in the love of mathematics for its own sake; the reward for doing well in one of his maths challenges is yet more sums. Perhaps unambiguous rightness is attractive to some but in science, Roger Lock (Science Extra page III) criticises the removal of the social and moral aspects of science from the national curriculum and the mismatch between stodgy school science and that experienced in the real world: gas laws versus smart bombs, the periodic table versus the ethical dilemmas of genetic engineering.

Of course it can be said that the answer lies in the delivery; that it is open to teachers to enrich their offerings beyond the basic syllabus, but time and examinations press and too many pupils are left with an impression of a subject that is tedious, difficult and out of touch with their lives.

As the BA's outgoing president observed this week, the sixth form curriculum itself is also a major deterrent to a student who might wish to keep his or her scientific options open. Those who choose physics A-level are invariably obliged to take maths also when students are increasingly looking for a more balanced sixth form course. Sir Martin Rees is right to urge Sir Ron Dearing to look into this in his 16 to 19 review.

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