Monthly Archives: January 2015

Save our Sciences

It is shaping up to be the new Education Secretary vs the new exam regulator Ofqual as Nicky Morgan comes out on the side of common sense in the practical science debate.

Yesterday, she publicly backed the call by many – including myself – for practical science experiments to be retained as part of GCSE and A level exams in England.

Mrs Morgan, who is shaping up to be a bit of a fan of the Sciences, rebuked Ofqual in a speech at the Politeia thinktank in London, for its plans to drop the practical element of studying the sciences, and said that dropping practical lab work from both A level and GCSE results would harm the next generation of scientists.

And in a shot across Ofqual’s bows, she warned that we must ‘never let the assessment tail wag the dog of what is taught in school’.

Her comments come just a few days before Ofqual’s consultation period on its planned changes to GCSE sciences ends on February 4. Ofqual wants to scrap controlled practical assessments at GCSE in favour of an additional written element to exams giving pupils the chance to show that they understand the practical side of various experiments.

As a chemist myself, I have been deeply concerned about these plans to reform practical science at GCSE and A level. It would be a travesty to rob future generations of the joy of experimenting in the classroom and the chance to really engage with science.

Not only that but the scientists and industry figures have warned that our skills shortage will become even direr if we deny children the chance to explore science practically and warn that we risk losing out on the creative, scientific brains of the future.

As the Guardian reports today, Mrs Morgan’s criticism will be the first major test of Ofqual’s independence. It was set up in 2010 as a non-ministerial government department.

She said: ‘I am concerned that a decision to remove practical assessment from science qualifications is in danger of holding back the next generation of scientists.

‘Like many in our scientific community, I fear that such a move could inadvertently downgrade the importance of these practical skills – leaving a generation of chemists, physicists and biologists who leave schools with excellent theoretical knowledge, but unable to perform key practical experiments which form the basis of a future research career.

‘My hope is that Ofqual and the scientific community are able to work together to find a workable solution. One that preserves high quality assessment, but at the same time ensures that what students learn in the classroom is what universities and employers agree will give budding scientists the best preparation to succeed in the future.’ Hear hear.

Ofqual retorted: ‘The development of practical skills is central to science learning, rather than something just to be assessed at the end of a course. Our proposals are designed to invigorate the hands-on learning experience of students and equip them for a future in science.’

However, Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, has admitted previously that ‘the most difficult decisions, the most finely balanced decisions, we have made here are in the individual sciences’.

Let us hope that common sense prevails not just for the future generation of scientists but for the future generation of teachers. As I have mentioned before, most schools already struggle to attract experienced science teachers because of the knock-on effect of several generations of lower standards in the teaching of sciences. Removing practical science from the curriculum could send this already teetering situation into the abyss!


Bravo to Blunt as he takes on Bryant

Barely was the ink dry on my last blog suggesting it was only a matter of time before the light-hearted banter about public schools dominating the Oscar nominations and suchlike turned nasty, when Chris Bryant MP stepped into the ring!

In an act of staggering hypocrisy, Mr Bryant, the Shadow Culture Secretary, dusted off some 1970s Labour ideals about private education and suggested in the Guardian that independent schools give pupils an unfair advantage in the creative arts.

He cited the successes of old Etonian Eddie Redmayne and Old Harrovian Benedict Cumberbatch, nominated for Oscars, and made the mistake of suggesting that Old Harrovian James Blunt got a leg-up in the music industry because of his schooling.

Bryant said: “I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for Best Actor], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk”.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Blunt has hit back in a scathing open letter to the minister which is currently going viral on the internet.

Why hypocrisy? Because like his colleague The Honourable Tristram Hunt (Old Boy of University College School and Trinity College, Cambridge), the Shadow Education Secretary, he is very much of that very same ‘ilk’ that he so disparagingly mentions. Bryant was educated at a leading independent school – Cheltenham College – and went on to Mansfield College, Oxford, to read English. Should we be told if Mr Bryant received a leg-up into politics because of his elite education? God forbid we should suggest that!

Never mind the hypocrisy of questioning where the likes of Glenda Jackson and Albert Finney went to school, who supposedly succeeded fairly because of the so-called ‘meritocracy’.

Both Glenda and Albert came up through the ranks of the grammar schools – Glenda at West Kirby Grammar School and Albert at Salford Grammar School, the same grammar school system abolished by Labour because they felt it gave an unfair advantage to too few and were too ‘selective’.

As James Blunt so eloquently puts it – Chris Bryant – “you classist gimp”!

Independent Schools Go for Gold at the Oscars

I have been amused to read in the papers this week about the real battle of the forthcoming Oscars: Eton vs Harrow…or should I say Old Etonian Eddie Redmayne vs Old Harrovian Benedict Cumberbatch for the coveted Best Actor award.

Redmayne has, of course, been nominated for his portrayal of the scientist Professor Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything while Cumberbatch has been nominated for his portrayal of World War II codebreaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

And, as it has been pointed out in a number of papers, the men are former pupils of two of the country’s greatest and most famous public schools in the land: Eton and Harrow.

I for one am proud to be part of an independent school system which spots and nurtures such outstanding talent and brings it to such incredible fruition.

Let us not forget also the outstanding Rosamund Pike, former Badminton School pupil, who is up for a Best Actress award for Gone Girl. She is joined by fellow Brits Felicity Jones and Keira Knightley, nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively.

It is a triumph for the British film industry and for our country that all of their artistic talents have been recognised. And yet behind the fun headlines of the Eton vs Harrow stories, there are sure to be some who criticise the ‘system’ which sees so many public school educated men and women excel in the creative arts, both in front of the camera and behind it.

I am thinking back to the last two Olympics when instead of praising the talents of all of our athletes, Lord Moynihan famously bleated in 2012 that it was ‘wholly unacceptable’ that more than 50% of medallists at the Beijing Olympics came from independent schools when only 7% of the population were privately educated. He certainly did his best to somehow take the shine off those independent school educated gold medallists, even intimating that they did not deserve their places on the team. Perhaps he would have liked to have introduced a quota system to ensure what he might see as equality?

More recently the former Education Secretary Michael Gove criticised the scale of ‘the private school dominance of top jobs in Britain’. He said it was ‘remarkable’ how many of the positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in Britain were held by former independent school pupils.

Too often the independent school system is somehow held to blame for what can only be lauded as the incredible achievements of thousands of its former pupils, often for political point scoring.

In fact, our independent schools have not only nurtured and brought to fruition the headline-grabbing talents of some of our Oscar nominated actors and actresses and their like but have also been responsible for adding value to thousands of lives and helping them to be the best they possibly can. In return, those boys and girls become men and women, many of whom give back to the wider world with their talents, headline grabbing or not!

I am looking forward to an untarnished British victory next month!

YouTube rather than the test tube if we do not save science now

It is a crucial month for those who love science and want to see that passion passed on to the next generation of schoolchildren as the teaching of practical science in schools is on a knife-edge.

Ofqual is threatening to scrap controlled practical assessments at GCSE in favour of an additional written element to exams giving pupils the chance to show that they understand the practical side of various experiments.

Teachers have until February 4 to make their views known before Ofqual moves forward with its proposals and only an overwhelming ‘no’ is likely to make any difference to their plans.

Only last year I expressed my concern when an Ofsted report warned of a large number of schools where pupils were already spending their potential practical sessions taking notes. Now it seems Ofqual wants to make this a reality.

Most schools already struggle to attract experienced science teachers because of the knock-on effect of several generations of lower standards in the teaching of sciences.

What hope have we got for the future of today’s students and the next generation if children end up only watching practical science – at best performed by their own teacher but unable to take part and experiment themselves – or worse still – overseen by inexperienced science teachers who are incapable to performing the experiments themselves – perhaps showing them a film of how to perform the experiment.

It sounds likes an Orwellian nightmare of the past – but today’s students could end up being taught science by watching it on YouTube. It will literally be a case of YouTube instead of the test tube!

As a chemist, I am deeply concerned about plans to reform practical science at GCSE and A level: like many, my earliest memories were of experimenting in the classroom and the sheer joy of doing so.

Academics and the science industry are at one of this issue – what hope do we have for the creative, scientific brains of the future if we stultify their passion for a subject before it has even been ignited?

It is time to say No to these proposals and to protect the science education of our students and future students.