A Continuing Crisis

New scientific and technological frontiers open every day, but is the bias against science and maths in our culture and education system about to let us down again? Dick Evans reports.

Long-running worries about science and mathematics in this country show little sign of abating. Having just returned from  East Asia I am more than ever convinced that we are simply not producing enough people qualified in the physical sciences, mathematics, statistics and engineering. By contrast, they are highly valued and flourishing in much of Aisa, with ever growing numbers of students leaving school, college and university qualified in scientific and mathematical subjects.

These subjects underpin scientific and technological research and innovation. A scientific way of thinking is essential now and in the future. Accepting that there may be cultural resistance to them in the UK does not mean we should continue to accept it.

Areas of concern

What should we be most concerned about? I would pick out four areas: the perceived ‘difficult’ nature of the subjects themselves; the structure and sequencing of teaching; how the curriculum is delivered; and the shortage of well-qualified teachers.

Many students perceive subjects that involve mathematics and science as difficult and see more attractive, better paid occupations in law, accountancy, media and so on. Universities and colleges continue to close or downsize departments in science, mathematics and engineering. As a result there is a growing shortage of skills in occupations that require qualified professionals and craftspeople, technicians ands technologists, in engineering and manufacturing disciplines.

Problems of structure and sequencing are currently causing anguish among teachers across the Atlantic. Of the science subjects taught in US high schools, biology is the only one that figures significantly in the first three years, with physics and chemistry introduced later. Many US scientists and educationalists argue that this is a damaging approach ‘upside down approach, which seriously weakens the basis of effective teaching. They argue that mathematics and physics are the foundations for science and need to be introduced earlier in the curriculum.

Curriculum battleground.

In England, as so often, the curriculum provides the main battleground. Many scientists would like greater emphasis on the foundations of mathematics and physics in primary and secondary education. Continual dilution of the syllabuses at GCSE level cause serious knock-on problems to post-school institutions and universities offering scientific and mathematical related subjects. Low pass rates for grade C in mathematics GCSE (< 20%) cause great concern about the ability of students progressing onto further and higher education. Arguments about single, double and separate science awards along with debates about the value of single and double awards in mathematics further undermine any real, tangible and long lasting solution to this important issue.

A problem faced in both countries is a lack of sufficiently qualified teachers and the relatively small numbers of newly qualified teachers entering the system – not enough to replace the large number of experienced teachers who will soon retire. The current skills agenda is not fully addressing this reality, even if the shake-up in financial markets may provide some welcome, if unexpected, quantitative easing’ of the labour market situation.

But I want to end on a positive note, by stressing the opportunities for real and effective learning that science and maths offer students and teachers. Science itself is becoming increasingly multidisciplinary, requiring knowledge and understanding of physical and life sciences combined. Examples of overlapping combinations can be readily seen in astronomy, forensic science, geology, meteorology and neuroscience.

An effective comprehensive science curriculum that builds on this integrated approach to learning is even more essential to our futures than is has been in the past.

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