There’s been a lot of talk over the past decade about the need for more people holding science, technology, engineering and mathematics qualifications in the workplace – with employers identifying a clear ‘skills gap’ in these areas amongst those leaving full time education. Yet it appears that we face two core stumbling blocks when attempting to address this imbalance. The first is one of an apparently ‘uninspiring curriculum’, and the second, a lack of qualified teachers in the relevant subjects.
Initially, the decline in students taking science A-levels – and there is one – was attributed to the fact that these subjects are perceived to be difficult and therefore a risky option for students wanting good grades to secure university places. However, looking at this another way, the fact that the demand for these skills by employers is so high and supply so low, means that studying these subjects actually increases a student’s future options.
More significant is the issue that the previous curriculum was considered dull; something that the new GCSE and A-Level curriculums aim to tackle. As Lee Grahame, of BESA member organisation Data Harvest explains, “Something that most students see as attractive is practical activities. The industry is certainly welcoming the new freedom to teach ‘proper’, interesting and relevant practical work”.
“The new A-Level curriculum includes 12 mandated practical activities for each subject,” adds Victoria Blair from BESA member organisation Timstar, “and therefore a lot of the learning time must include using the wide range of practical teaching resources available to schools.”
The common belief is that these hands-on, practical, investigative activities lead to better learning. However, the reality is that students often do not make the gains for which we are hoping through participation in a practical activity. Osborne (1998) argues that practical work ‘only has a strictly limited role to play in learning science and that much of it is of little educational value.’ Even Ofsted is of the opinion that in scientific enquiry at secondary level, ‘the range of investigations is narrow.’
In his paper, ‘Analysing practical activities to assess and improve effectiveness: The Practical Activity Analysis Inventory (PAAI)’, Robin Millar analyses practical science activities and concludes that the key differentiators between achieving learning benefits, or not, appear to be based on the kind of practical work used, and the way it is incorporated – in other words, it’s not just what you do, but how you do it that matters.There are many sources of advice and guidance for teachers on this subject, including Timstar’s recent publications in partnership with the Association of Science in Education (ASE). This highlights opportunities for practical and investigative science throughout KS3.
The Russell Group has reported that 80 per cent of physics teachers in independent schools have a degree in physics, compared to only 30 per cent of those in state schools. The suggestion is that there just aren’t enough specialist science – and particularly physics – teachers to teach and inspire our students.
However, as outlined by Lee Grahame, “This is based on the assumption that you need a specialist to teach GCSE sciences. The reality is that while schools do need someone who is qualified for the A-Level stages of study, the more ‘generic’ teachers can deliver the curriculum at the earlier GCSE stages. The Science Learning Centres (SLCs), the Association of Science in Education (ASE) and what remains of the local authorities used to do a magnificent job of reskilling. However, there is currently a lack of the necessary high quality teacher training in the sciences.”
Nonetheless, there is help available. Teachers looking to upskill can turn to the Institute of Physics (IOP) www.iop.org, ASE, and the Royal Societies of Biology and of Chemistry, whose core aim is to support schools and colleges. There is also a broad range of BESA member organisations who provide the highest quality resources with associated curriculum aligned training; for example, Data Harvest’s new A-Level aligned materials are free to download at www.data-harvest.co.uk, whilst IDS, UK supplier of Vernier Software and Technology, is soon to launch its range of practical STEM resources designed to guide the teacher through the learning process. It’s certainly worth looking out for these by visiting www.inds.co.uk.
Other advice comes from Fran Scott, a practising expert in children’s science media, who uses her expertise to convey seemingly complex scientific ideas simply and coherently and is working together with Timstar on resources that are ideal for non specialist science teachers. Full information is available from www.timstar.co.uk.
The support is certainly out there for teachers to raise STEM standards in our schools, if only they are encouraged to access it; and when they do, hopefully we’ll see takeup of these essential subjects going from strength to strength.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline Wright is director general designate at the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)