What future for the sciences?

27th March 2009 at 00:00

The Scottish Government has initiated a marketing campaign and a baccalaureate to increase the uptake of science in secondary schools, but I am concerned that these may be contradicted by other policies, or at least confounded by the way in which other policies will be implemented.

Much has been made by professional scientists of the increasing interdisciplinary nature of science and how many scientific developments now occur at the boundaries between what have traditionally been seen as the main scientific disciplines. Progress requires a supply of graduates with a good basic grounding across more than one area of science.

In this regard, science is different from most curriculum areas or modes in secondary schools. The study of German at university does not also require the study of the basics of Spanish, but for advanced study of biology, knowledge of basic chemical processes is not just recommended; it is essential.

Science is not a single entity, it is a "broad church". It is therefore common, particularly for entry to the study of professions allied to medicine, but other sciences too, for universities to require or prefer pupils who have studied combinations of three or even four of maths and the sciences to at least Standard grade, if not to Higher.

Currently, it is common for our more able pupils to study English, maths and at least two sciences in S3-4, go on to five Highers in one sitting in S5 and then take three or even four Advanced Highers in S6. Our curriculum allows such a broad education, which still provides for depth and specialism later. The Royal Society of Edinburgh has held this up as superior to curriculum models elsewhere in the UK for promoting high uptake of the sciences in upper secondary school.

With the review of National Qualifications, there are moves in some quarters for pupils to choose five subjects from S4 onwards. How many pupils of 14 years and six months are in a position to be sure of such choices? How many will feel the need to keep options open, particularly the most able who are capable of studying many subjects successfully, and will therefore choose a combination of S4 courses such as English, maths, a language, a social subject and only one science leading to a Higher in S5? Where then the future study of science, let alone a group of sciences leading to the baccalaureate?

It would be ironic in this year celebrating Scottish culture, if many secondary schools moved to a curriculum structure which denies future generations of "Lads and Lasses o' Pairts" the benefits of the broad education of which Scots have long been proud - while simultaneously thwarting the Government's attempts to increase the uptake of science in upper secondary school and university on which our economy depends.

Stuart Farmer is chair-elect of the Association for Science Education Scotland and head of physics at Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen.

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