Education Quandary

'Why dumb down science at school when we need more scientists to tackle climate change and other problems?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

Because, bluntly, school science has been so uninspiring that many pupils are turned off taking science at A-level or university. So there are fewer science teachers to teach tomorrow's students - and so the spiral will continue unless something radical is done.

Under the new regime, children will study subjects that touch their everyday lives - genetics, food, mobile phone technology, climate change - and look at how scientists set about arriving at conclusions. That way, the thinking goes, we will make children more excited about science, and have a more scientifically literate population able to debate intelligently on issues such as nuclear power and vaccination.

It is true that the bedrock course is a generalist one, with less pure science than before. But dedicated scientists can build on this to take chemistry and physics GCSEs, while those whose interest is newly awakened can tap into a whole range of post-16 courses in academic, technical or vocational science.

The courses have been condemned by newspaper columnists who probably don't know an isotope from an ion, but who probably want pupils to suffer, like they did, over covalent compounds and kinetic energy, while university scientists fear that their supply of well-prepared school leavers could dry up. But the old science exams didn't provide enough of those anyway. So the only really dumb thing about the new approach is not to accept how much it is needed.

Readers' advice

I'm a chemical engineer who has watched helpless as my two children gave up on science. I am convinced that a classroom overhaul is long overdue. Both my children were good at science, but they turned their backs on it after GCSE and went on to study English and performing arts at university. Too late, they now accept that their job prospects would have been much better if they had taken the science route.

Brian Pearn, Warwickshire

Colleges complain that most new undergraduates are completely unprepared for their university courses. Anything that further reduces their level of knowledge of their subjects is to be deplored. I am not a scientist, but imagine this to be particularly true in subjects like chemistry and physics, where you cannot make progress without the right foundations. I know from my own experience of teaching religious studies that it is all too easy for dumbing down to creep into the curriculum, and for children to be asked to understand things only at a superficial TV level.

Lucy Highcliffe, Devon

Critics of the new courses believe they will be no good for future scientists. But all kinds of people need to understand science, not just those who are going to specialise. MPs need it to debate things such as bird flu and mobile phone masts. Anyone who gets ill needs it when they look up their symptoms on the internet. You can't live in the modern world without some understanding of science and technology, and schools must provide this.

Julie Marley, Buckinghamshire

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary,

We struggled for months to get our daughter into a good secondary school three years ago, and we are dreading the whole saga repeating itself when our son comes round to leaving primary school next year. We have even been thinking about moving house in order to avoid it. But will the new admissions code make a difference? We would prefer to stay put.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 6 November, to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or e-mail h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack of a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.

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