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Boffins demand: Cull bogus A-Levels, hire brainier teachers

UK values sci/tech grads – very few forced into teaching

By Lewis Page, 15 Feb 2011

Today the Royal Society, Blighty's pre-eminent boffinry institution, has issued its "state of the nation" report into science education in the UK – and it doesn't make encouraging reading.

According to the report, there are far too few schoolchildren studying the correct combinations of subjects at A-Level in order to become science or technology undergraduates – and so develop into useful high-skilled citizens of the future as opposed to mindless drones qualified in the humanities or other soft studies.

The reason for this, according to the Royal Society, is that nowadays most sci/tech faculties prefer an undergraduate to be qualified in maths and two sciences at A-Level – and in general most students only expect to take three real A-Levels (General Studies or similar joke fourth subjects don't count).

Even where parents and teachers know enough to offer a kid the right advice (ie take Maths, Physics and Chemistry at A-Level – and Further Maths too if you can manage it – almost regardless of what you want to study at uni and do in life thereafter) it is often difficult to persuade teenagers that they should do so much more work than their idle chums taking English, Geography or whatever. And, to be fair, they may have a genuine interest in another subject well worth studying – for instance a foreign language.

That's where the A-Level system falls down compared to the Scottish "Highers" setup, which lets kids take five subjects as standard, according to the Royal Society. With this increased elbow room, many more Scottish students study sciences, and many more manage the crucial combination of maths and sciences (particularly maths and physics), without which nobody can really be said to be truly educated*.

Thus the Royal Society recommends a two-pronged attack on the current A-Level system.

Firstly, there should be an attempt to rein in the vast and continually burgeoning range of bullshit A-Levels which are easy and fun to do but no use whatever – and which tempt kids away from the true path. The report says:

The increasing diversity of A-level and equivalent qualifications provision (particularly in England) needs to be reviewed, and its impact on the numbers of students taking science and mathematics post-16 evaluated. Awarding organisations should make available detailed data on the participation, attainment and progression of students taking their specifications in science and mathematics.

Then, the rest of the UK should move more to a Scottish-style system which would permit kids to study more subjects at an advanced level.

In undertaking reforms to A-level qualifications in England, the Department for Education should consider modifying their structure to enable students to study a wider range and increased number of subjects than is usually the case now.

Of course, it's all too often impossible for kids – even if they have been correctly advised and have the guts or intelligence to go for a proper selection of A-Levels – to do so, because their school or sixth-form doesn't offer those subjects. This is primarily because the teaching profession is unable to attract the science and maths graduates needed to teach these subjects, leading to a "vicious circle" in which not enough people study them at university and even fewer are then available to become teachers.

Plenty of secondary schools don't offer worthwhile GCSE science – so if your kid goes to one, he or she is stuffed already

It gets worse, too: in general it will be hard for a kid to study physics or chemistry at A-Level if they haven't previously done a GCSE in the subject. But far too many secondary schools don't offer these GCSEs, instead blobbing all the sciences together in simplified "science" qualifications – more or less writing off their entire student body's chance to study sci/tech subjects any further. Many parents don't realise that this is now quite common and don't find out until after their children are at a such a useless secondary school.

And more bad news. Even if children attend a secondary school which offers proper science teaching, they may get permanently turned off science and maths while still at primary school – in part due to unimaginative curricula and "teaching to the test", but also because primary school teachers with any real knowledge of science and maths are extremely, vanishingly rare. Primary school teachers as a group are like a sort of more extreme version of the teaching profession generally.

The Royal Society doesn't really know how to deal with the woeful lack of teachers who know things: the only concrete suggestion is that such science and maths teachers as there are should be kept up to speed in their subjects.

Science and mathematics teachers should undertake subject-specific continuing professional development (CPD) as part of their overall CPD entitlement. Funding should be maintained for the National Science Learning Centre, the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics and the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre, to allow these bodies to continue to support effective subject-specific CPD for science and mathematics teachers.

It's probably going to take more than that, but the Royal Society has declined to tackle knotty issues such as vastly enhanced pay for specialist teachers, or some trimming back of the bloated Postgraduate Certificate of Education guild-badge system.

The learned drafters of the report also decline to discuss the problem at the other end of the sci/tech higher education system: that despite the low numbers of science grads and postgrads produced in the UK, they often struggle to find work that makes any real use of their qualifications (in their view, anyway; though they may tend to underestimate how useful their skills are in apparently non-scientific fields). We get a lot of grumpy mail and comments on the subject here at the Reg, along the lines of "here I am with a PhD in astrophysics and writing code/minding data centres/flipping burgers like any monkey" etc.

Evidently the employment situation for sci/tech grads isn't that desperate, though, or more of them would be willing to become teachers.

Read the full Royal Society report and associated documents here. ®


*The Royal Society has telling words for anyone inclined to study biology without maths and/or other sciences at school, thinking this will let them become a proper scientist:

Data from this report suggest that, across the UK, of the numbers of students taking biological sciences and/or chemistry and/or physics, a comparatively small proportion takes physics or chemistry alone. However, the proportion of students with a single biology qualification is, by comparison, very large.

While a qualification in the biological sciences alone (or possibly alongside geography or psychology) may allow entry to courses such as psychology, sports science, environmental science or nursing, students who have a single A-level/Higher in biology have a reduced number of STEM degree options (which includes being able to study biological sciences at many HEIs) compared with those who have studied, say, both biological sciences and chemistry.

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