Science under the microscope

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Douglas Blane looks back over Science Year and how Scottish Executive funding has been spent on upgrading learning and teaching

National Science Year was launched spectacularly in Scotland at the Glasgow Science Centre in September 2001, when Jack McConnell, who was then Education Minister, joined a million schoolchildren across the UK in jumping up and down at once. It ended at the Royal Society Edinburgh in December, with a showcase event featuring enthusiastic youngsters and Education Minister Cathy Jamieson describing the year as "a great success".

The extent of that success is difficult to gauge. A sample of educationists canvassed at the end of the year for their opinions gave replies ranging from "a bit of a distraction" to "When does it start?"

It would be easy to criticise Science Year for its low profile in classrooms. However, there is a limit to what can be achieved with pound;200,000. Even in England - where 20 times as much was invested - the project was criticised for not making a bigger impact.

In Scotland, the Science Year team organised 19 country-wide projects, including a website, a roadshow for teachers, posters for primary schools and distributing microscopes and CD-Roms to schools. They also supported 114 events ranging from stone age survival skills in Annan to theatre productions in Stornoway and involving 61,300 children and adults. Anyone who spoke to participants at these events would agree with Ms Jamieson that they "enthused, excited and fired the imagination of the pupils, parents and teachers".

So, evidence of the year's success should probably be sought in the sparks created in people's minds.

Science Year was a small component of the Scottish Executive's overall Science Strategy and the injection of funding last year should now be having a significant impact in classrooms. In January, pound;5 million was distributed to local authorities to be spent by the end of March and a further pound;3 million went out in May. The funds were allocated to tackle two of the 10 schools-related Science Strategy commitments: high quality continuing professional development for teachers and modern science equipment for classrooms.

"The apparatus in science labs all over the country is old and worn," says David Lawson, science adviser in Glasgow City, whose allocation of more than pound;750,000 formed the biggest slice of the pound;8 million. "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's in good order, it sells an image to youngsters that science is old and dusty and not cool.

"Because of the timescale, we spent the first tranche of funding centrally. With the help of teachers we drew up a list of items for science 5-14, then bought every primary school a set of equipment that would present science to kids as modern and relevant."

Items included mirrors, lenses, tuning forks, stopwatches, thermometers, motors, buzzers, batteries, bulbs, rocks, balances, safety goggles, test tubes, beakers, funnels, measuring cylinders, retorts, filter paper, skeletons, model eyes, ears and digestive systems, insect traps, bug bottles, pond nets, fish tanks, seeds, globes, posters and videos.

"We now know what every school has in terms of resources. We're extremely pleased with the way it went," says Mr Lawson.

As well as equipment for primary schools, Glasgow's first tranche of pound;471,000 was used to provided secondary schools with laptop computers, interactive whiteboards, data projectors and interfacing equipment.

Its second tranche of pound;282,570 was partly devolved to primary and secondary heads (pound;194,570) and partly used to put probationers into schools, releasing teachers to develop 5-14 science materials.

Scottish Borders is another authority where virtually all its Science Strategy funding - pound;198,090 - went into schools. Both tranches were distributed to primary and secondary schools to buy equipment for 5-14 science.

"We were in the process of devising a science programme for primary schools," says science adviser Joy Snape. "So, when the money came in we went through the support materials and costed what it would take to equip classes for the activities. We found we could do it for just over pound;1,000.

"We produced a list of equipment, then organised an exhibition day for teachers to come to see the equipment and talk to suppliers. Each school did its own buying but the majority followed our recommendations."

The results have impressed outside observers. "It's an excellent example of how to equip primary schools for teaching science," says Jack Jackson, the HM Inspectorate of Education's national specialist for science.

"Modernising the equipment in school science labs and providing teachers with high quality staff development can make a big difference to science learning and teaching in both primary and secondary schools," he says. "The first two tranches of Science Strategy funding have allowed significant improvements to be made around the country, particularly in equipping schools for science 5-14.

"A priority now is to update teachers' knowledge and skills and to provide professional development in a range of innovative teaching methods."

Some authorities are less forthcoming about how they spent their Science Strategy funding. Stirling has so far received pound;145,280. It simply says a depute headteacher has been seconded as science co-ordinator to support primary schools in developing science (pound;40,000); teachers have been commissioned to produce 5-14 science files (pound;10,100) and pound;95,180 have been devolved to school clusters and secondary school heads.

Argyll and Bute could also only provide the barest details. It has spent its allocation of pound;171,210 on preparation of level E and F 5-14 science packs (pound;43,652) and Gaelic translations (pound;1,348) with pound;36,637 devolved to primary school headteachers and pound;89,573 devolved to secondary school heads. Schools only received the money two to three weeks ago.

The sort of detailed, constructive guidance seen in Glasgow and Scottish Borders was given only in areas with strong science advisers who have a firm grasp of the difficulties teachers face.

The Scottish Science Advisory Group says that in some authorities 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 Executive is expected to announce further Science Strategy funding in the near future. So far, spending in some authorities has been of more obvious value in the classroom than in others. Given the diminishing role of science advisers, and the fact that local authorities and school managers have to balance competing demands, a growing responsibility for ensuring that these funds are used appropriately falls on individual science teachers and heads of department.

Teachers who want to ensure that optimum use is made of Science Strategy funding are advised to find out how much their local authority is receiving and exactly how it plans to invest it and to ask similar questions of school management.

A Science Strategy for Scotland is available online: www.scotland.gov.uktel 0141 242 0188, e-mail science.strategy@scotland.gsi.gov.uk

SCIENCE STRATEGY FUNDING TO DATE

Aberdeen City pound;260,460

Aberdeenshire pound;469,180

Angus pound;193,300

Argyll and Bute pound;171,210

Clackmannanshire pound;76,160

Dumfries and Galloway pound;288,040

Dundee pound;202,940

East Ayrshire pound;194,850

East Dunbartonshire pound;185,950

East Lothian pound;144,910

East Renfrewshire pound;155,840

Edinburgh City pound;494,440

Eilean SiarWestern Isles pound;65,240

Falkirk pound;212,750

Fife pound;543,360

Glasgow City pound;753,570

Highland pound;429,450

Inverclyde pound;127,720

Midlothian pound;134,090

Moray pound;157,110

North Ayrshire pound;220,430

North Lanarkshire pound;510,980

Orkney pound;47,070

Perth and Kinross pound;225,560

Renfrewshire pound;266,580

Scottish Borders pound;198,090

Shetland pound;57,630

South Ayrshire pound;177,880

South Lanarkshire pound;481,250

Stirling pound;145,280

West Dunbartonshire pound;149,130

West Lothian pound;259,570

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