Top civil servant tears into key school policies

13th February 2009 at 00:00
He hits out at `schizophrenic' diplomas, education for the `masses' at the expense of the most able, and ministers' exaggerated claims for science

The government should focus on getting GCSEs and A-levels right before it introduces "schizophrenic" new diplomas, one of its most senior education civil servants warned this week.

The outspoken attack came from Professor Adrian Smith, director general of science and innovation, who also suggested ministers were educating "the masses" at the expense of equipping the most able.

Professor Smith, second only to the permanent secretary at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Duis), warned that ministerial rhetoric was exaggerating improvements in science education and that "insidious" health and safety legislation was stifling scientific curiosity in schools.

The Government's former maths tsar, who joined Dius in September 2008, suggested golden hellos for trainee teachers would be better spent on higher salaries for teachers of certain subjects.

On the new work-related diplomas, Professor Smith, said: "In core subjects like maths and physics we already have a shortage of qualified teacher cover. Are we wise in adding different bits of curricular offerings, each of which will require additional teacher input?

"Are we thinking in a joined-up way when we plan curriculum developments and new programmes, whether we have the teacher power, planning and recruitment? Might we not be better getting GCSEs and A-levels right first?" He described the new science diploma as a "slightly schizophrenic" concept trying to challenge A-levels and offer work-based learning.

Professor Smith, principal at Queen Mary, University of London, for 10 years, said universities were saying "we won't touch" the Government's new A* A-level grade because they felt it favoured independent schools.

On science in schools, he said: "If you ask a lot of scientists, chemists and engineers what turned them on in the first place, I am afraid it was things like making bombs.

"I think both in terms of funding, in terms of qualified teachers, and the insidious effects of health and safety legislation, we may have done something rather damaging to that fundamental curiosity. We need more explosions in schools."

Professor Smith said overall science A-level entry figures looked encouraging, but could be explained by rises in subjects such as sports science and psychology.

The Government might celebrate this as part of the increase in take-up, he said. But student numbers studying "hardcore" science at universities remained static.

In the annual Tribal education lecture, he also warne: "We have a tension in the education system. We are educating everybody - the masses - for citizenship, for (mathematical) competences and functionality.

"Higher education and the innovation and high tech industries of the future involve those at the end of the spectrum who are capable of achieving and aspiring to more professional levels of mathematics.

"There are still serious questions in the system about whether we have really cracked that balance."

Schools Secretary Ed Balls defended all three academic diplomas: "The proposed content of the science diploma is significant and ambitious, and through the consultation we will want to consider whether all the benefits can be realised through a single science diploma."

Professor Smith said:

  • The Government should get GCSEs and A-levels right first before introducing `schizophrenic' new diplomas
  • It might be better to scrap golden hellos and fund higher salaries for teachers of certain subjects
  • Universities are saying: `We won't touch' the Government's new A* A- level grade
  • The `insidious' effect of health and safety legislation is damaging scientific curiosity
  • Ministers are using science participation figures to make the situation look better.

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