Too busy tinkering

31st August 2001 at 01:00
THE Scottish Executive's latest drive to give science its place in the sun (page four) demonstrates the dilemma facing ministers. Not enough scientific endeavour in the nation? Make a start in the schools. Not enough technologically capable manpower? Turn pupils on to technology. Skill shortages in the labour market? Get good careers advice moving early. Problems with sex and drugs? Schools will provide (the answers, not the sex and drugs). Racial intolerance in the community? Pupils must learn how to practice harmony.

The other side of the equation is equally familiar. Crowded curriculum? Let's permeate - or amend a few guidelines. Too many demands on teachers' time? Make them more "professional". Bored pupils? Introduce "flexibility". The circle cannot be squared if things go on like this. It is little wonder that teachers breathe a weary sigh every time a national problem raises its heads, whether it be economic failure or asylum-seekers. They can write the script before the familiar refrain: "The solution has to begin in the schools."

Science, the subject of the latest mantra this week, is a good illustration of the problem. Uncertain confidence among teachers, not enough scientific activity in lessons and the demands of assessment - against the powerful access to science provided by the internet and television. It is an unequal struggle for schools.

There are competing demands within schools too. A 1999 survey by the Association for Science Education found that primary schools in England had cut back on the amount of time devoted to science because of the requirement to deliver the national literacy hour.

No evidence has emerged that this has happened to any great extent in Scotland, but the same pressures exist. There are creative ways round this of course - advancing literacy skills by writing up scientific reports or science enquiries prompting design-and-make activities in technology, for example.

But the piecemeal approach to curricular overhaul has undoubtedly reached its sell-by date. Two very different approaches are highlighted in this week's TES Scotland - North Lanarkshire's revamped guidelines (page one) and the rather more ambitious prospectus outlined in our continuing series on the future of Scottish education (page 17). Whatever the outcome, ministers must extend their policy of joined-up government to the curriculum.

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