Education: Teach science as if it were history

Physics and chemistry teachers are so scarce we need radical measures to keep the subjects alive.
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The Independent Online
NO ONE forgets a good teacher, or so the Teacher Training Agency would have us believe. But when it comes to science, some educationists are predicting that future generations of schoolchildren may not have any teachers, good or bad, to remember.

Applicants for teacher training in science subjects - especially physics - have plummeted this year, leading one researcher to warn that in the future, physics teaching in schools may virtually disappear.

The number of science graduates choosing to train as teachers has been in decline for several years, but this year the figures are particularly bad. The number who have accepted to train as secondary school physics teachers is down 37 per cent on last year, while chemistry is down 19.4 per cent. Biology fares slightly better with a drop of 16.8 per cent.

"The situation in chemistry and physics is a national emergency," warns Professor David Galloway, head of education at the University of Durham. He and many other educationists blame the shortfall on the bad press teachers have had over the last few years, and particularly on the impact of Ofsted.

"What bright young graduate wants to see him/herself constantly pilloried in the press?" asks Professor Galloway. "Or publicly associated with a school which doesn't please the whim of an Ofsted inspector?"

Poor pay and conditions are also thought to have contributed to the shortfall, especially when good science graduates know they can get better paid and less stressful jobs in industry. "Science graduates get the pick of jobs in senior management, planning, systems operations and marketing," says Professor Charles Desforges, director of Exeter University's DoE.

In the past - especially during the last recession - secondary schools have relied on mature applicants laid off by industry to fill their science posts, particularly in physics - but the recent economic upturn means this is no longer happening.

The difficulties of attracting science graduates into teaching are part of a wider problem afflicting teacher training. At a time when there are more graduates than ever before, the absolute number entering teacher training is going down - with the result that many subjects this year have suffered a shortfall (one exception being PE).

But why is science in particular so badly hit? Mike Wilson, a PGCE science tutor at Sussex University, believes the crisis has partly been brought about by science's image problem. "Since the beginning of mass education, Britain has had an anti-science culture," he says. "It probably stems from the tradition of the independent sector, which has always emphasised the classics."

Our anti-science culture is compounded by the way it is taught in schools, says Professor Desforges. "It's often taught way over the children's heads and in a very boring way," he says. Subjects such as English and history, by contrast, often get taught with great dynamism. This may be because the best science graduates don't come into teaching. The same, of course, is true of English and history but the threshold is different. And there are very able arts graduates in teaching who are more likely to be interested in people. Scientists are more interested in the inanimate world - and I say this as an ex-science teacher."

Physics in particular is poorly taught, according to Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University: "Very few physics graduates apply to teacher training and those who do tend to have poor degrees."

The result is a vicious cycle. Low quality teaching means children are turned off science, which means fewer sixth formers taking science A levels. This results in fewer science graduates and an ever-diminishing pool from which DoEs can recruit.

"Unless something radical is done, physics teaching in schools could disappear," warns Professor Smithers.

What can be done to resolve the crisis? On the ground, no one seems to have much confidence in the Teacher Training Agency's efforts to attract more graduates generally. Its pounds 1.5m ad campaign, "A good teacher is remembered forever" now running for nearly a year and featuring Tony Blair, Richard Branson and other high achievers "made one gasp at its naivety", Professor Desforges says.

"People look at the campaign and think: `If they've got to lay it on that thick there must be something wrong.' The best advertisement for teaching would be to film a school with a fleet of Porsches in the staff car park."

He is only half joking. "If they want more science teachers they have to pay them more money," he argues.

The Government's Green Paper on teaching, expected later this year, is expected to take a crack at some of the problems facing teachers, including salaries and career prospects.

But Mike Wilson suggests there are specific ways to improve recruitment among science graduates. As an interim measure, we need to offer financial incentives to attract mature students out of industry into science teaching in return for some form of commitment," he says. "At the moment they have to take out a loan to train. Ideally they should be offered a full salary."

The trouble is he says, that mature students cost schools more to employ because of their experience adds on incremental points.

He also suggests encouraging more transfers from non-shortage to shortage subjects, and regular sabbaticals in university science departments. Professor Smithers would like to see differential pay for science teachers.

But to get to the root of the "anti-science" bias, a radical rethink is needed about how science is taught. He suggests that schools may be teaching too much science of the wrong sort and end up putting people off.

"At the moment science is taught in an abstract and over-theorised way," he argues. "We should take a more human, historical approach to scientists and how they work - teach the story of the human struggle. This could be done in primary and lower secondary by very large numbers of people who are currently teaching history. Then you have a small, targeted cadre of scientists reaching specialised science to those who opt to do it."