Professor Brian Cox has used his skills as an academic and a presenter to make science accessible and popular for a primetime TV audience. Now he wants the UK to go a step further and become “scientifically literate”. And he believes it is schools that can make the difference.
Professor Cox set out his recipe for improving science education in an exclusive TES interview. He revealed that he wants to see changes in the subjects pupils study and greater trust placed in teachers. He also spoke of his concerns about the assessment of practical science work.
Top of his checklist is a shift back to the individual science GCSEs taken by a declining proportion of pupils as combined science becomes more popular. He believes that for people to gain a deeper understanding of science, the subjects of biology, chemistry and physics should be studied separately up to the age of 16.
Not only would this better prepare young people for further scientific study, Professor Cox said, but it would also equip a generation with the tools necessary to understand the big policy decisions the public will face across many different areas in the future.
“I think there’s some evidence that students do better at science when they do all the subjects separately,” Professor Cox explained. “There are two things here: one is we want to produce the scientists and engineers of tomorrow, so we need to make sure students are inspired and have the right skills to go on and do A-levels and go on to universities, or go and do an apprenticeship. But there’s also a desire to make a generally scientifically literate population. And that’s really important because the big policy decisions that we face are almost entirely, or can be entirely, informed by evidence.
“We’re asking questions about health policy, or education policy, or climate change or energy policy or whatever – the idea that you understand what evidence is, how you acquire it and how you should weight it and deploy it is very important. I think that’s the most important thing about a scientific education. That’s what it’s about, really.”
The rise of combined science
This summer, nearly 400,000 candidates sat combined science GCSEs, compared with fewer than 140,000 in the separate sciences. And the gap is growing: combined science entries are up by 6.2 per cent compared with 2014, while entries to biology, chemistry and physics dropped by 1.8 per cent, 3.3 per cent and 2.6 per cent respectively.
Richard Spencer, an award-winning head of science at Middlesbrough College, said he agreed that separate sciences led to a better understanding of the subjects. “[These students] would naturally be more scientifically literate because they would have a more in-depth knowledge of the subjects,” he said.
Shaun Reason, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said it would be too difficult to make every child study the separate sciences, but it was important to increase their interest. “We must get young people involved in the debate, because if you look at some of the pseudo-science out there, it’s easy for young people to be taken in by that,” he said.
Fears for practical assessment
Professor Cox’s comments come just weeks after he suggested that science should form a crucial part of the University of Oxford’s politics, philosophy and economics degree, which was studied by many of the country’s top politicians.
The University of Manchester professor of particle physics also told TES he had concerns about a decision to stop the assessment of practical experiments counting towards science GCSE and A-level grades. He fears this could diminish science practical work in schools, if handled badly.
“The way to learn to do science is to do experiments,” he said. “It is imperative that students do practical experiments and take them seriously. What the government has to be very careful about is not devaluing practical work.”
Professor Cox added that ministers should trust teachers more if they were serious about wanting to raise the status of the profession. He pointed to Finland, where he said the professional standing of teachers was “very high”.
“On a general point, and I find this in university as well, if you trust professionals then you do a lot of things at once,” he said. “You value them more, which means people are more likely to want to do it, and also I think the outcomes are better.
“So, one thing I would say to government is lean a little bit more in favour of trusting the judgement of teachers, because then you will elevate the profession.”
Brian Cox’s recipe for a science-savvy generation
Students should take separate sciences at GCSE.
Politicians should be given a better grounding in science and scientific research.
Care should be taken about changing the assessment of practical work at GCSE and A-level.
Teachers should be trusted and paid more, and have greater autonomy handed to them.