Light up children’s lives: Being a science teacher can be very rewarding

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There are few things that grab children's attention more than flashes, bangs and smells. And no time of life rivals childhood for producing questions about how the world works. When these two human characteristics merge, the job of a science teacher can be among the most rewarding in the world.

And that's why 31-year-old Tom MacLennan left his job as a hospital haematologist four years ago to train as science teacher. He's now a physics specialist in the science department at The Royal Liberty School for Boys in Romford, east London.

"It's the perfect job for me in many ways," says MacLennan, whose degree in molecular and cellular biology initially took him into science laboratories in hospitals. "Science is the subject for the century, and kids are really interested in what's going on around them."

MacLennan particularly likes the independence he enjoys as a classroom teacher, even though he says the job can be like juggling several balls in the air at the same time.

"Some days you have to prepare lessons for five different classes, which means seeing 150 kids in one day, and that can be daunting at first. But as long as you get through the curriculum over the course of the year, you also have the freedom to drop everything if someone asks an interesting question and just talk about anti-matter and the beginning of the universe for a lesson."

Teachers such as MacLennan are among the most valuable human resources needed in schools today. For more than a decade, the message coming though from industry and university science departments is that, as a country, we need to improve the supply of teenagers coming out of schools with aptitude and ambition in what are known as Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

Among the factors blamed for the decline in numbers of undergraduates choosing science subjects has been a shortage of schoolteachers with appropriate degree-level qualifications. Studies have revealed that large numbers of lessons in Stem subjects are being taken by teachers without specialist knowledge in the relevant areas.

"There's clear evidence from Ofsted that, all other things being equal, teachers with good subject-based qualifications are better teachers than those who don't have them," says Professor Sir John Holman, director of the National Science Learning Centre, a national network of government-funded science learning centres set up five years ago to help science teachers maintain their subject knowledge and refine their teaching skills. Holman, who is also the national Stem director, says: "Just having the extra depth of knowledge is very important to deal with challenging questions that bright youngsters can come up with."

To try to increase the quantity and quality of Stem graduates going into teaching, the Government introduced some attractive financial incentives.

Chief among these is a bursary paid during the training year. This amounts to £9,000 for those training to be teachers of physics, chemistry, maths, design and technology, engineering and manufacturing as well as the new diplomas in Stem areas. A smaller bursary of £6,000 goes to those becoming biology or general science teachers, subjects where graduates have proved slightly easier to recruit.

There is also a "golden hello", paid after teachers have done a year in the classroom. This is £5,000 for maths and science teachers, of whatever subject, and £2,500 for design and technology teachers. Although these inducements have helped raise recruitment – last September, teacher training institutions exceeded their targets in these subject areas – shortages still exist in schools, so there's every likelihood that training to be a Stem teacher will remain financially attractive for some time.