Time to turn pupils back on

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Health and safety concerns, the national curriculum and tests are turning pupils off science, Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, believes.

Mr Tomlinson, who is the Association for Science Education's new president, told The TES: "We have to find ways to put back creativity and a bit of risk-taking into science teaching."

"There are many experiments that used to happen either as teacher demonstrations or pupils' practical work that are not done now.

"At all levels we have taken out teachers' creativity, not just because of health and safety concerns but because of the structure of the national curriculum and the way in which we assess pupils."

Mr Tomlinson will use his speech to the ASE conference today to outline the challenges facing science education and set out the association's plans to push policymakers into action.

He led an official review of 14-19 education and said teachers' caution was not confined to science but that it reduced the subject's attraction for pupils.

The number of young people taking physics A-level fell by 21 per cent to 28,945 during the 1990s and has fallen by a further 11 per cent since then.

"It is ironic that since the point at which science was made a compulsory subject (at GCSE) we have seen fewer students go on to study physical science at degree and A level," said Mr Tomlinson. "We have a huge problem."

It is almost three years since a report by Sir Gareth Roberts, president of Wolfson college, Oxford, warned that many pupils are "dissatisfied, if not turned off, by the quality of the experience they receive in their school science education".

Mr Tomlinson said a change of culture was needed to give teachers the confidence to perform experiments that carry limited risk.

The creation of chartered status for science teachers could boost their confidence and skills.

The balance between ensuring pupils are taught skills such as investigation alongside traditional scientific knowledge also needs to be re-examined.

"The content versus skills debate is not an eitheror," said Mr Tomlinson.

"It is about getting the balance right."

Girls are put off science by an overcrowded and boring curriculum and because they think it is irrelevant.

He said they cannot see the point of experiments, and complain that lessons are often not explained properly, making it difficult to take in scientific facts and equations.

Girls had a strong dislike for equations, symbols and technical terms, which they found mystifying and nonsensical.

Teachers said they found it hard to express themselves in scientific language.

The study of more than 200 pupils and teachers, commissioned by the Association for Maintained Girls' Schools, said there was "an overwhelming tendency for girls to need to see the relevance of science for their own lives in order to be engaged by it".

"They are particularly interested in issues around the human body, genetics and so on, making it easier for them to be motivated by biology topics," it said.

They were also engaged by subjects that were relevant to their lives, and by group work and collaboration in science lessons and practical experiments.

His comments came as a study from London Metropolitan university's institute for policy studies in education showed that girls who found science difficult and boring said they disliked copying from the board or textbooks.

One student told researchers: "A lot of things in chemistry and physics I don't see the point in knowing."

Another said: "Photosynthesis, what is the point? You don't wanna become a plant, why do you need it?"

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