Letters: Science suffers when education is a scramble

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Martin Rees comments that there is a dearth of good science teachers in our state schools (31 December). He may be right. But who would want to teach science or any other subject when the curriculum does not allow enough time to do it properly?

In physics, for example, the best way to teach Ohm's law is through practical work with resistors, batteries, ammeters, voltmeters and bits of wire. Yet, with too many subjects, the time to teach physics may be squeezed to the point where, unless the teacher prioritises practical work, the teaching of Ohm's law becomes a paper exercise.

What other part of the physics syllabus will the teacher sacrifice to give time for a practical approach to Ohm's law? Since the exams can be passed through a paper exercise, the temptation to forget the practical is huge.

Forgoing the practical work reduces job satisfaction for the teacher and offers a much worse learning experience to the pupils. When education is reduced to a mad scramble, quality suffers. Against this background, recruiting and retaining physics teachers is going to be more difficult.

The overcrowded curriculum arises from a failure to decide the aims and objectives of state education. Until the quality of the leadership from the Department for Education improves, the curriculum will not improve, and our teachers will remain stressed. The problem is probably too hot for politicians to handle.

We might begin by finding a way to set state education aside from politics.

David McKaigue


Martin Rees rightly highlights the need for all young people to have access to knowledgeable, enthusiastic science teachers (31 December). He laments what he calls the dearth of good science teachers, but he does so without taking the opportunity to showcase the great work many science teachers are doing in classrooms all over the country. Nor does he mention the incentives that could be put in place to make his vision a reality.

In my role overseeing the national and regional Science Learning Centres, I have the privilege of meeting just some of the many thousands of teachers and school science technicians who participate in a whole range of activities to update their knowledge and skills each year.

I never fail to be impressed by their dedication to their profession, their subject and their students. We in the UK do need more highly knowledgeable, highly skilled science teachers.

I agree with Lord Rees that making teaching a high-esteem profession is one of the key ways of achieving this. It is not, however, just about getting great people into teaching; it's about supporting and continually developing the people once they are there and the teachers we already have.

Yvonne Baker

Chief Executive, Myscience, National Science Learning Centre and National STEM Centre,

University of York

It is not so much the dearth of good science teachers that explains the inaccessibility of science in society (31 December) but continuous Government interference and inspection. After the dumbing down of the science curriculum under Labour, we have the confrontational Michael Gove and his humourless Ofsted sidekick, Michael Wilshaw, crushing the life out of passionate and enthusiastic young teachers. Just as scientists need freedom to investigate their hypotheses, so science teachers need freedom to teach.

Stan Labovitch


It's magnificent but not worth a knighthood

So, Lee Pearson, the disabled dressage gold medallist, is virtually demanding a knighthood ("Paralympians did deserve more honours, says former minister", 31 December).

There can only be a tiny fraction of the UK population that suffers from Mr Pearson's severe affliction. And, among those, only a handful must be dressage competitors. It is admirable that any severely disabled person can achieve something in sport, but with such a limited number of competitors, his achievements could be viewed by many as being the best knitter among other knitters in an old people's home. Lee, you simply cannot expect a knighthood for that.

Alan Hunter


Arabs held back by the West

I respect Robert Fisk's trenchant journalism but his notion (31 December) that Arabs might be handicapped by learning colloquial forms of their language before progressing to the written form is to misunderstand what language is and how it works. As for culture, there are few that do not define themselves by the three pillars of nationalism, religion and language – so that observation, too, is by no means uniquely applicable to the Arabs. If anything is holding back progress in Arab culture, it is the political and social structures that enforce the status quo – a status quo finally being challenged, but which we in the West have supported for far too long.

Simon Prentis


Gay marriage and questions of sex

The objective of those who support same-sex marriage is a single concept of marriage embodied in a single legal framework applying to all, irrespective of biological sex or sexual orientation.

People who pontificate on the meaning of marriage and declare it must be between one man and one woman are wrong: history and anthropology show the many forms it has taken at different times and in different societies. But current British law does define marriage not just as the union of one man and one woman, but as the sexual union of one man and one woman. (Sex is not compulsory: it only becomes an issue if one partner makes it an issue.)

That marriage is currently defined as sexual is why there is a table of consanguinity that forbids incest, why adultery is grounds for divorce and why non-consummation is grounds for annulment.

So the question is: will the new law of marriage include reference to sex? If it does not, it will change the concept of marriage between a man and a woman, and introduce all sorts of consequences for society. Presumably incest will still be forbidden, but will adultery and non-consummation still exist?

If the new law of marriage does include reference to sex, it is not clear how concepts of consanguinity, adultery and non-consummation can be carried over from two-sex marriage to same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage cannot be based on the same table of consanguinity as two-sex marriage, and there is a question of whether the concept of incest is relevant to same-sex marriage. Non-consummation is even more problematic, as it is currently understood in terms of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman.

I sort of support same-sex marriage, but until these matters are clarified, I do not know what I am supporting, or whether same-sex marriage on the same terms as two-sex marriage is possible.

Andrew Belsey

Whitstable, Kent

David Perry's thinly veiled homophobic rant (letters, 1 January) is exposed when he gets to step five, "Say that marriage is simply an expression of affection between two people". Marriage is the ultimate declaration of love and commitment between two people, and it should be available to all couples, whatever their sexual orientation. The issue of commercial surrogacy is a red herring, as it just as easily affects childless heterosexual couples.

Penny Joseph


West Sussex

Harried to death

Reece Fowler (letters, 31 December) argues that gamekeepers rarely aim to wipe out predators and claims the predator control they carry out does not impact on the conservation status of any native predators. This is not true. One of our most beautiful birds of prey, the hen harrier, has been more or less eliminated from England by gamekeeper persecution.

Jonathan Wallace


Newcastle upon Tyne

Obesity is not an illness

The NHS response to obesity is misguided, not "inadequate" as the Royal College of Physicians is claiming. Obesity is an environmental issue, not an illness requiring ever more expensive treatments.

We need a healthy lifestyle in which people can walk and talk in the street, and children can play there, as they used to. Lower speed limits ("The 20mph revolution", 1 January) do not address this; the car still dominates. Giving non-distributory residential roads the same status as pedestrian crossings would give back the streets to people who live in them. Increased walking and playing would tackle obesity at no cost to the NHS.

Rob Wheway

Director, Children's Play Advisory Service


Unlucky 2013?

After the hysteria over the Mayan apocalypse, there appears to have been little panic over the dawning of 2013 with its obvious inauspicious associations. Last time we had a year 13, in 1913, it ushered in two world wars. The superstitious should also note that the number 13 will occur twice on one day every month, including two Friday 13ths. Is 2013 the year that dare not speak its number?

Anthony Rodriguez

Staines-upon-Thames, Middlesex

Ban the bangs

Am I alone in thinking fireworks that generate loud bangs should be banned on New Year's Eve? They wake and frighten the elderly and the very young, disturb the sick, and cause distress to our four-legged friends. Allow the use of colourful fireworks, but let's introduce a ban on those that generate excessive noise.

M I Webster

Loughton, Essex

Petty cash

I recently received a demand from HMRC for 25p (costing more to send than the actual payment). It said interest would be charged if I didn't pay. Feeling compelled to ring, I was told the liability had been sent out automatically and to ignore it – unnecessary cost to me, having to ring them, and to them (ie the taxpayers) sending it out.

Juliet Barnett

Enfield, Middlesex

A bit of a poser

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (31 December) calls Tracey Emin a "poseur" – "poseuse", surely?

A C Bolger