There's real chemistry

2nd January 2009 at 00:00
Thousands of people have signed up to train as science teachers. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at getting the mix right in school labs

Ask most adults what they remember about science at school and chances are they will mention a geeky teacher in a white lab coat delivering a dull, incomprehensible lesson.

But science teaching has come a long way in the past two decades. Improved state-of-the art facilities in schools and better pay and financial incentives for new staff have made science teaching more attractive, but it still has to compete with other professions for the best graduates.

The lure of a high-powered, City job can be strong when one of the alternatives is to keep control of a class of 30 teenagers in an over- crowded classroom, with long working hours and none of the perks that come with a six-figure salary.

But, somehow, science teaching has been holding its own. Recent figures from the Training and Development Agency for schools (TDA) show that the number of trainee science teachers has exceeded government targets for the first time.

By early October last year, more than 3,400 people had signed up to train and a further 230 were to take the employment-based training route. However, an additional 6,600 teachers will be needed over the next two years.

The TDA says it is not complacent. "Because of the current economic situation we are likely to get more people looking at teaching as a career," says John Connolly, its head of recruitment. "But we cannot just rely on this to sustain numbers."

So just how are so many high-calibre graduates going to be recruited by the TDA and encouraged to stay in the profession in the long term? Campaigns such as Your Science aim to show the fun side of teaching. It was introduced in November and is using YouTube to help discover the nation's favourite science experiment. More than 16,000 people viewed the "screaming jelly babies" experiment - which demonstrates the effects of oxidation of sugar - in the first 11 days. "We want to challenge the misconception that science is dull and boring," John says.

Science enhancement courses - intensive programmes for graduates who need to develop subject knowledge before training for qualified teacher status - are also going to be expanded.

"There are 600 places on these (courses), but they are not spread evenly around the whole country," he says. "In 2009 we will increase this number to 1,100, with a further 2,000 the following year.

"Enhancement isn't about one size fits all so there will be courses of varying lengths that people can do full-time or on a part-time basis to fit in around their work and family commitments." The courses carry a bursary of up to Pounds 7,600.

Other stipends for science graduates include a tax-free bursary of up to Pounds 9,000 a year, or Pounds 225 a week, and golden hellos of up to Pounds 5,000, which are paid at the start of the second year of teaching.

The Transition to Teaching scheme is the result of growing collaboration between the TDA and companies such as IBM and BT, as well as public sector employers.

John says: "We work with companies and organisations to identify people who are leaving their jobs, either through redundancy or because they are looking for a career change or a new challenge.

"So when a worker hands in their notice, we are asking their employer to find out more about their plans for the future and whether they might be successfully directed toward teaching.

"If they show an interest they are immediately assigned a mentor and access to a virtual learning environment so they can find out whether the job is for them."

The TDA expects to recruit about 400 people a year in this way. But, says John: "They are not going to receive any special treatment or favours. They will still have to meet the same professional standards of anyone entering teaching.

"They will have to apply for a training place, demonstrate their subject knowledge and communication skills, and show that they can get a message across.

"Teaching is not for everyone. However, many of the skills that people pick up in their jobs transfer successfully to teaching. People coming from the City and finance sector, for example, can usually demonstrate that they can work in a pressured environment.

"Undoubtedly, there are some clever people coming in to the profession, with some amazing skills and experience."

John adds: "If you look at the proportion of vacancies in schools it currently stands at about 1 per cent of posts - though for science it is about 1.5 per cent. In the grand scheme of things this is not a huge number, and is much lower than other public sector jobs, such as the police on 10 per cent and social care 30 per cent.

"We need to meet the targets so we can close that gap, and then we also have to retain these teachers."

Miranda Stephenson, director of the National Science Learning Centre programme, agrees. The organisation runs a number of residential and shorter professional development courses.

"We know that the first two years of teaching are particularly difficult and this is when typically teachers tend to leave the profession if they don't feel nurtured," Miranda says. "So we offer opportunities for them to develop professionally, typically in terms of their subject development, and pedagogic practice. We look at what can make a difference in the classroom."

One of the courses offered by the National Science Learning Centre helps teachers to develop their knowledge and understanding of Assessment for Learning, where teachers work closely with pupils on their progress and targets.

"A scheme such as this can help the teacher acquire a lot of job satisfaction because he or she can see the child enthused by the subject and taking an interest in their learning," Miranda adds.

The centre runs Project Enthuse, a Pounds 30 million scheme funded equally by the Government, and private and public sector organisations, which aimed at improving science teachers' subject knowledge. The scheme attracts a bursary of about Pounds 400 to meet supply cover, the course fee and leave some for resources that will help the teacher to implement the necessary changes in their classroom.

The centre also organises summer schools for newly qualified teachers, a five-day course that allows them to reflect on their first year in teaching.

"New teachers come to us with a variety of stories and experiences," Miranda says. "Some feel highly valued, are given a reduced timetable in their first year to ensure they ease in the job and have an excellent mentor. Others, however, are given difficult classes and not enough support. It can be tough for them. These are the teachers who are vulnerable and are more likely to leave."

However John Howson, an education recruitment analyst, is sceptical that the TDA will meet its targets. Furthermore, he says, there is little point in training teachers if schools are found not to have the money or vacancies to take them on.

"We have a situation where new citizenship teachers have been trained to teach this new compulsory subject, and yet they are unemployed. Why? Because when the subject was first introduced schools got history and RE teachers to cover it," he says.

"So what are schools supposed to do now - sack those people and employ the newly trained citizenship teachers?

"I can see science going the same way. Schools have had to make do for a long time, and I cannot see heads sacking teachers to make way for the new science specialists. These targets are set by the Government and the TDA with not much thought about the employment market as a whole."

Professor Howson also warns against a dependency on the recession to attract new teachers.

"If the economy suddenly picks up we could have a situation where many of these people don't take up their training places next September," he says.

"We need people who are dedicated to teaching. There is a real danger that we will spend valuable money training teachers who will not last the course and will leave as soon as the economic situation improves."

Alex Dunlop is a PhD student, who is training at London University's Institute of Education to be a physics teacher. Alex admits that his choice of career has raised a few eyebrows among those who believe his knowledge might be better employed in academia or doing research.

He remains optimistic about his job prospects, despite Professor Howson's prediction that there may not be enough jobs to go around.

"I believe that if you can be flexible about where you live, then it won't be that difficult to get a job," he says. "I don't feel particularly worried. Only about 200 people are training specifically in physics."

Alex believes that teaching lacks the "wow factor" that is normally associated with high-powered jobs, because the pay and working conditions are still seen as inferior to those in the City and big business. "People retain a perception of science teaching that is based on their own experience," he says.

"The challenge for everyone is to change that perception, and the way to do this is to attract more young, dynamic and enthusiastic people, who are high-quality graduates, into the profession."

If the statistics are a true reflection, white coats could be making way for pinstripe suits soon


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