In Britain we're OK at teaching science and maths. Not bad, but certainly not great. This should worry you. Our school-leavers deserve and need to understand the modern world around them, and as a nation we need to be able to compete in a global high-skills economy. If this is to change, our science establishment should take it upon itself to do even more to promote and celebrate best practice in education.
Despite the UK's reputation as a beacon of excellence, with only the US possessing a longer list of Nobel laureates or Fields medallists, we really are mediocre at educating the next generation. The Programme for International Student Assessment's (Pisa) 2009 survey of 65 nations ranked us 28th for maths and 16th for science - behind countries such as Estonia, Poland and Slovenia. A recent comparison of 24 advanced economies showed that England, Wales and Northern Ireland were the only ones in which fewer than one-fifth of students studied maths post-16.
To give the sector its due, we have seen some improvements. The number of pupils obtaining good GCSEs and A levels in science has risen, as has the number of those going on to study science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) at degree level. But these improvements may be more fragile than many would like to admit.
Independent schools account for just 13 per cent of all A levels taken, but supply only slightly less than a fifth of chemistry, maths and physics A levels sat, and well over a quarter of further maths A levels. Comprehensive school pupils, by contrast, are over-represented in arts and humanities subjects. It is a similar story at GCSE level, but one of the recent bright spots has been a rise in state-sector pupils studying "triple science" (biology, chemistry and physics as separate GCSEs). This is good: we know that not only does taking triple science correlate with a pupil's likelihood of further study in STEM, but that this effect is more pronounced among less privileged pupils.
Sustained effort from the teaching and science sectors has been a big part of that success. Another factor was the rise of the science and maths specialist schools, whereby ring-fenced funding for teaching these subjects was unlocked in return for meeting specific targets in science or maths. The specialist school model is not without its detractors, but the Kitemarking principle of rewarding and recognising good practice is one with proven success. It has been used in everything from electrical safety to employment standards, and we have seen it give schools a real incentive to give their pupils an advantage in pursuing further science and maths training. You might therefore expect that we would be reinforcing this incentive. Instead, the ring-fenced funding for specialisms has been removed.
The English Baccalaureate, which requires maths and two sciences, should help ensure minimum standards. New teacher-training bursaries for top science and maths graduates, brought in to replace the now-scrapped "golden hellos", are intended to boost the supply of specialist teachers. All this is valuable, but as well as encouraging supply, we need to consider demand. The financial climate for schools is tough, and the costs of teaching subjects such as physics and chemistry aren't exactly among the lowest. Also, despite recommendations by the Science Community Representing Education (SCORE), we still have no clear definition or map of specialist teaching provision, so it is hard to see how far we have to go.
It's not all bad news, of course. We have passionate teachers and excellent schools pushing for the best possible education for pupils. By recognising and promoting that excellence, the science and engineering sector could help to encourage more of it.
A little respect
The hardest thing for any Kitemarking scheme, new or old, is having a respected brand. Why should employers or governing bodies aspire to a Kitemark's arbitrary standard? Where is the authority for that standard coming from? Well, the UK just happens to be blessed with globally exalted institutions such as our National Academies as learned societies, along with charities such as the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby foundation which have a fantastic record of funding education interventions.
The sector already does much to support education, not least in working with government to set curriculum standards and organising fantastic events like the Big Bang Fair, and via education policy partnerships such as SCORE and Education for Engineering (E4E). However, we could go further. It's easy to imagine, for instance, the Royal Society or Royal Academy of Engineering using their brands to promote a new Kitemark. This could be awarded to schools that had an appropriate roster of specialist teachers and enrichment programmes, offered triple science to all pupils and promoted professional development to all staff. There would be no need to reinvent the wheel. Yes, it would be harder in practice than in theory, but if it raised aspirations in a handful of schools, we would have succeeded in improving science and maths education for thousands of pupils.
From the heights of Victorian engineering to the complexity of today's bioscience revolution, the history of British science and engineering is characterised by "OK" never being good enough. It's time we made sure the same was true of the support we provide to the next generation.
Imran Khan is director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.