Science: The vicious circle which dogs education

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Absolutely crucial to the improvement of science teaching in schools is an adequate supply of enthusiastic and well-prepared young teachers coming out of the training institutions. And that is where science in education runs into the vicious circle which has dogged it for decades.

The numbers of young people taking science A-levels has actually fallen slightly faster than the fall in the number of 18-year-olds between 1988 and 1998. But this masks a rise in the numbers taking A-level biology of almost one third, and a reduction of 27 per cent in those taking physics. Chemistry has remained fairly stable. Inevitably, given this stagnation in the sixth forms, the numbers taking science degrees has not expanded to anything like the extent of subjects like business studies and the humanities over the last ten years. Admissions to biology degree courses have almost doubled, reflecting the interest at A-level, but physics and chemistry undergraduate numbers have increased only marginally.

As a result there has been a permanent shortage of recruits to teacher training courses in the physical sciences and recruits have tended to be less well qualified than their peers specialising in, say, English and history. Schools have found it hard to recruit science teachers and the chances of persuading 16-year-olds to take science A-levels have been reduced, so giving the spiral another twist. And there is not much sign that the situation is improving.

This year recruitment on to secondary teacher training courses in all the sciences is running 40 per cent below the DfEE's targets, and there is a 60 per cent shortfall in mathematics and design technology recruits, subjects equally crucial for many young people contemplating scientific or technological careers. Applications for teacher training in physics fell by 36 per cent this year compared to 1997, and maths and chemistry were down by 20 per cent. Some university education departments have found recruitment so difficult they have closed down courses because of the lack of candidates. Even where courses continue to run, the Teacher Training Agency is concerned that graduates are put off by the mis-match between the topics covered in first degree courses and those needed to teach the National Curriculum in schools.

Graduates are not enthused by teacher training when they discover they have to cover large areas of subject knowledge during their postgraduate year. There is no doubt that teacher supply is now one of the government's top priorities. The restructuring of the profession announced by David Blunkett this month, with proposals for performance related pay and a "fast-track" for exceptional entrants, is designed to boost numbers as well as keep able teachers in the profession. But Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University, who has made a study of teacher supply, is not convinced the government's measures will succeed. From next September, postgraduate entrants to the profession training to teach "shortage subjects" - including but not confined to the sciences - are to be offered up to pounds 5,000 as a "golden hello". But previous experiments with bursaries for science graduates, he says, have had only a temporary effect on recruitment. A major worry is that while the teaching profession as a whole soaks up ten per cent of graduating students, it demands in the region of forty per cent of graduates in maths and the physical sciences. This is a high proportion for the schools to attract even in the best of circumstances. And given the way in which postgraduate teacher-training recruitment follows graduate unemployment trends - rising as other jobs become harder to find - Professor Smithers suggests teaching is a second choice career for many graduates, and that the profession is a poor competitor in the graduate market-place.

When the Royal Society surveyed science undergraduates in the early 1990s it found the teaching profession was perceived to be one of low pay and low status, with poor career prospects. Teaching fell below their personal aspirations for a career in almost every respect except interaction with other people and the benefit of the job to society.

Already involved in modest projects to bring the experience of practising scientists to bear on work in the schools, the Royal Society is now looking at ways in which it can bring its considerable expertise to bear on the recruitment crisis, perhaps by encouraging collaboration between university science departments and the schools. The aim: to ensure that teachers remain enthused about teaching science and about science itself.

Like Professor Alan Smithers and the Government, they do not underestimate the seriousness of the present situation. But no one can claim at this stage to know all the answers.