Where the sciences have reached a Cults status

16th January 2009 at 00:00
Why is it that the toughest course - physics - is packed with enthusiastic students? Douglas Blane finds out how one school has upped the ante

It is an astonishing sight. Row upon row of young people calm, cheerful and totally absorbed in learning. Just a normal, well-run classroom you might think. But this is Advanced Higher physics, the toughest course in school, which often attracts small numbers and few girls. Yet at Cults Academy in Aberdeen the class is bursting at the seams, with rather more young women than men.

Sixth-year chemistry and biology are every bit as popular, says headteacher Anna Muirhead. "Youngsters love going up to the sciences. There's a good feel if you go into any of the classrooms. They are having fun while working hard. These departments have created a momentum, with high uptake and real success breeding more of both."

So, are Cults Academy science teachers just very good at making their subjects appeal to young people? Well, yes. But so are Scotland's schools and teachers as a whole, according to an authoritative report from the Royal Society, published last term. It's information that could not be gleaned from our largely London-based television or newspapers:

- "A million children are being taught physics by people who are not physics teachers," bemoans the BBC.

- "The number of pupils taking A-level physics has dropped by 21 per cent," groans The Guardian.

- "Pounds 5,000 pay incentive to lure science graduates back into the classroom," thunders The Times.

All this, while true, is irrelevant to Scotland, where the picture is entirely different, points out the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science. Post-16 participation rates for science and maths are "very considerably greater" than in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

In Scotland's schools, 22 per cent of students sit Higher maths, compared to 8 per cent taking A-level south of the border. In chemistry, 12 per cent compared to 5 per cent in England. In physics, 11 per cent compared to 3.5 per cent.

The obvious and intriguing question is why. What are Scotland's teachers doing to enthuse so many more young people than teachers elsewhere in the UK? And it is not just enthusiasm. As far as comparisons can be made, "performance in equivalent examinations in Scotland generally exceeds that elsewhere in the UK", states the Royal Society.

The report recommends further research into "lessons that may be learned by other UK nations". But strong pointers already exist, it says, touching on pupil-teacher ratios, Higher and A-level comparisons, the comprehensive system, curricula and assessment, before suggesting that the main factors are likely to be:

- "young people in Scotland have the opportunity to specialise in the separate sciences from age 14";

- "Scotland has a healthier number and supply of teachers who are specialists in these subjects."

Both factors are strongly in evidence at Cults Academy, where pupils take separate physics, chemistry and biology from second year, rather than the integrated science course that is almost universally taught and disliked elsewhere, and where all three departments have been led for years by strong and experienced principal teachers who aim to get the best out of every child.

"You relate the subject to what they'll meet in their lives," says John Daglish, principal teacher of physics. "You make it interesting. You make it fun. You don't need gold stars and smiley faces. If they respect a teacher who says `well done', that's enough.

"With kids who get disillusioned quickly, you give them a taste of success which starts an upward spiral. It makes them work harder. Working harder makes them better, which makes them work harder. Give them a little success and it keeps on going."

Aberdeen's oil industry means many Cults parents are science or engineering professionals, and pupils at a school with a free meal entitlement of 2.5 per cent make different choices from those in inner- city schools. But there is more going on at Cults than just privileged kids doing well.

The same factors the Royal Society suggests make the difference in Scotland as a whole - separate sciences taught early by strong specialist teachers - are particularly evident at Cults. At the same time, participation and performance there are extremely high. Coincidence? If the Royal Society is right, almost certainly not.

"It's about how you relate to the pupils," says Ian Smith, principal teacher of chemistry. "They like coming here because they like the science teachers. I've taught at schools very different to this, where you really had to re-appraise your teaching. You have to get the kids on-side. You can't assume they can do things. So you break it down into little bits that they can do. It's amazing the difference that makes. I remember one boy who was causing trouble in a lot of classes, but I got him to work on his chemistry to catch up. In the end, he went on to a degree at Strathclyde."

The technique of illustrating abstract concepts with everyday examples, mentioned by several science teachers, is also one that Cults pupils highlight when asked what they like about science there.

"The teachers put you in a practical situation," says Mark Johnston (S6). "One was talking about friction and compared it with a footballer going in with his studs. In the oil-drop experiment, electrons were being brushed off the way you brush something off your sleeve, he told us. Simple things, but they help you understand."

The secret is not to let pupils get bored, says Rachael Boyd (S6). "Mr Daglish keeps it going all the time. If you're having a bad day it's like `Oh no, it's physics next', because you don't get a chance to daydream. It makes it exciting, though."

Teachers at Cults excel at making their subject enjoyable, says Fergus Cooper (S5), who is taking all three sciences at Higher and plans to be a doctor. "Not just for the bright ones, though. They are good at making everybody bright."

Teachers are aware of pupils' abilities, says Latifa El Shafei (S5). "They know what I'm capable of, which makes me feel good if I'm struggling with something. They don't look at us all as one. They know us individually."

Interest in science was sparked for many senior students by startling experiments they got to perform - not just watch - in first year. Very little previous science stuck, they say, and their understanding of science as three separate subjects came early in secondary.

Biology is easier to distinguish than the other two sciences, and often appeals to the less mathematically inclined. But here too the post-16 participation rates in Scotland are much higher - almost double - those elsewhere in the UK.

At Cults the numbers are high enough to almost create problems, says Linda Price, acting principal teacher of biology (following the retirement as department head of prominent biology teacher Kevin Carter). "We have 40 students at Advanced Higher, a huge number to find projects for, and physics and chemistry have similar numbers. Children like to know what it is you're teaching them. They see science here as three strong, separate departments that work together."

In contrast, there is a growing trend south of the border towards general science up to Year 11 (S4), reports the Royal Society. This creates concerns about the quality of teaching by non-specialists, which are heightened by the fact that combined and general science PGCE has just overtaken biology as "the most popular science teacher training course in England and Wales".

No such general science course exists in Scotland, where a teacher completes the postgraduate year qualified as either a physics, chemistry or biology teacher - or occasionally two out of the three. This goes to the heart of good science teaching, the Cults teachers and the Royal Society believe.

"If a teacher isn't 100 per cent confident in a subject, kids pick up on it," says Cults physics teacher Alastair Howie. "I'd make a better English or maths teacher than a biology teacher - which I didn't do at school. But in a first-year science course, I'll sometimes be teaching biology.

"You can get away with it at that stage - just. But having a specialist makes the kids so much more confident. They get their confidence and enthusiasm from the teacher, and it's not always the big stuff. It can be the little extras you bring in, just because they interest you."

Keeping subjects separate while collaborating closely is the key to success in science teaching, says John Daglish. "The supports you need across sciences are similar. The skills you develop in one reinforce those in the others. I used to be told I was trying to dumb-down physics. I wasn't. I was making the subject accessible to everybody.

"The key is to break it down into chunks. It is not about science as performance or entertainment. It is about teaching in an entertaining, friendly way. But the nitty-gritty of your subject is still what you teach."


Comment 22


The Royal Society report was compiled by a distinguished panel of educators, largely from south of the border. But the sections on Scottish school science were researched and written by Jack Jackson, former HMIE national specialist for science and now visiting professor of education at Strathclyde University.

"This is a really positive message for science teaching in Scotland," he says. "The uptake of the sciences here is significantly higher than elsewhere in the UK, almost certainly because we have retained the separate sciences taught by specialists - 65 to 70 per cent have honours degrees. We have no shortage of good science teachers.

"The other key message for Scotland is our broad range of provision - from Intermediate 1 all the way to Advanced Higher. This means we can meet the needs of all our young people and not just the future scientists."

The failure to distinguish between Scotland and the rest of the UK leads to faulty reasoning about the state of school science, says Professor Jackson. "People in higher education with a background in the English educational system often claim that young people aren't choosing to do the sciences nowadays because they are not well taught in schools.

"But they are assuming what's true in England is also true in Scotland. It is not - as the Royal Society report shows. Young people in our schools are choosing to study the sciences.

"If they don't choose to study them later on, then the universities need to look to their courses, I would argue, and to the methods they use to teach them."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today