Tag Archives: #politics

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!


Really Mrs Morgan?

This week, Education Minister Nicky Morgan warned that schoolchildren who focus exclusively on arts and humanities-style subjects risk restricting their future career path and said she believed that disciplines such as the sciences and maths open more doors for pupils than many subjects traditionally favoured by academic all-rounders.

She said too many young people were still making GCSE and A-level choices at school that held them back for the rest of their life.

Delighted as I am that the new Education Secretary is talking about the importance of young people’s exam choices for their future, I strongly disagree with her – and I say that as a scientist myself.

I do not believe that we should be running down the arts to try and encourage more children to take up the sciences, maths and other STEM subjects. In fact, it is totally irresponsible to do so.

Those who excel in arts subjects and the creative arts should be encouraged to follow their dreams and pursue their chosen subjects. Happiness in their choices is all important to ensure they enjoy the future rigorous study ahead and children must study the subjects they show an aptitude for. Dare I say that children’s future happiness is far more important than a potential pay gap between an arts and a science graduate.

Mrs Morgan warns that large numbers of children without a clear idea about careers have been pushed towards the arts and humanities in the past – rather than sciences – because they are seen as more useful “for all kinds of jobs” when they should have been encouraged to take more practical subjects.

It is a cheap shot to frighten students into picking sciences over the arts when it comes to picking their choices in their teenage years by encouraging insecurities about getting a job.

I do not believe that forcing children down any particular avenue, whatever it is, is productive in the long run. Yes, it is often very difficult as a teenager to see what path lies ahead but this is why the ideal case scenario is a breadth of education from the primary years upwards, including the GCSE years.

There are also, of course, children who do not show a particular aptitude for either arts or the sciences and they should be helped to find their own particular talent or skill. This would not happen if their choices were narrowed too early.

I am worried that Arts subjects seem to have become the whipping boy in the drive to improve academic standards. Art, music and drama are a crucial part of the school curriculum and they should remain so.

The subjects suffered during the introduction and then abandonment of the EBacc marker when they were downgraded and not included as key subjects. This led to a 14% fall in students taking arts GCSEs in just 4 years. Also, the A Level facilitator subjects apparently approved by the Russell Group of universities have now become the basis of the A Level league tables for schools. This means that the creative subjects in particular suffer: subjects like Music, Art and Drama.

Combine this problem with that of children dropping the subjects because of costs and you have a recipe for disaster for the future of the creative arts in the UK.

As for studying the sciences, I believe we have a real problem here and I speak as someone who has a Chemistry degree and has worked in industry.

For the last decade or so, the science curriculum has drifted although we are finally seeing some much-needed focus being brought back in. This means that many children who have grown up during this period have not been inspired by the study of practical science to truly understand what it takes to study the subject. The study of sciences SHOULD be really tough. The sort of student who excels at the sciences, especially in the curriculum’s current form, needs to be a resilient learner who is prepared to try and try again and not be discouraged. This is why traditionally, boys, who tend to have more confidence about getting back up again after failure, have drifted towards the study of the sciences and girls have perhaps been discouraged.

What we need to do to encourage more students – and in particular more girls – to study the sciences is to change the way children are taught about science from the primary years. Learning to fail is a part of developing the skills required to understand and succeed in science. We need to teach students that in the sciences, as with any humanity subject, you may need draft after draft before you get it right.

Another problem is that sciences by their nature have become more and more theoretically based as the elements of practical science have dipped. They are in danger of not being a practical subject any more if this does not change!

The Council for Science and Technology recently flagged up its concerns on this subject.

And finally, just as I believe the arts are crucial to education, let us not forget that science can also benefit everyone. All types of learners can benefit from taking part in a practical science experiment and can enjoy taking part just as all types of learners can enjoy taking part in art or music, irrespective of their talent or otherwise.

Women on top?

WOMEN now make up a fifth of the Government front bench with a record six women now entitled to attend Cabinet meetings.

This is great news but delighted though I am that Mr Cameron is finally fulfilling one of his Election pledges to improve equality in frontline politics, I cannot help but feel a little disappointed that this smacks of tokenism ahead of a General Election in the not too distant future.
It is disappointing, I feel, that some of these obviously talented individuals had not been promoted before the Government needed a quick draw for female voters!

I have been ambivalent towards the introduction for all-women parliamentary shortlists and quotas for women on FTSE 100 companies, but I am beginning to think that these might have a place but what we really need to change is the attitude towards women in frontline politics and business as mere window-dressing.

This view is perpetuated by the media coverage which follows any senior female appointment. This is invariably accompanied by a description of what they are wearing or an interview talking about that old cherry of whether they can have it all or not or whether they have had to sacrifice their chance of family and personal happiness on the altar of ambition rather than a description of why they are qualified for the job. This is far from the kind of coverage we see when a man is appointed to a top job.
Until this attitude changes, the raft of talented women just below the radar may still fail to reach the top jobs, however many of them there are who are qualified for the most senior positions.

I am sure this is the reason why so many senior women who have been so anti-quotas have changed their mind over recent years.
Organisations like Women 1st campaign for the promotion of women to senior roles in industry, believing that not enough has been done to meet Lord Davies’ target of 25% female representation on boards.

Lynne Franks, women’s issues advocate and patron for Women 1st, recently said: ‘I was at the original breakfast meeting chaired by Lord Davies and, when he talked about quotas, none of us thought it was necessary. Since then, there has been a huge amount of work on getting more women into leadership roles, but the reality is, they’re not there. So, my view has shifted and I am very keen on having quotas for as long as it’s necessary until we get to that point.’

By the same token, all female parliamentary shortlists, which David Cameron has talked about imposing on local constituencies where necessary, may well prove the only realistic way to improve female representation at Parliament, as much as we would all prefer a female to succeed by merit alone through the traditional system.