Real science being squeezed out of schools
“At long last, there is recognition of the issues which have turned students off, and driven teachers away, from science education”, Julian Wigley, ex-Head of Science, Perry Beeches School, Birmingham
Science investigation and experiments in schools are being squeezed out, threatening the UK’s economic competitiveness and future capacity for innovation, according to a report and an opinion poll published, today, by NESTA (The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts).
NESTA’s report, Real Science, makes the case that innovative approaches to experimental and investigative science learning should be at the core of science education in the UK. It also shows that this approach to learning has the potential to reverse the apparent decline in young people’s interest and engagement in school science.
The report has been supported by leading science bodies - the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics - as well as a number of leading scientists, including nobel prize winners Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Harry Kroto.
A key recommendation in the report is a plea to national policymakers that unless a more ‘hands-on’ approach to science is enhanced and extended in schools, there is likely to be negative consequences for future scientific research and public scientific literacy in the UK.
Real Science says science experiments increase motivation, develop thinking skills and connect learning about science to the real world. Yet despite developments in curriculum design, teacher training, and additional resources, significant problems remain. The result is that pupils perceive science to be about fixed facts because lessons fail to convey the excitement of exploring the unknown – ‘the wonder of science’.
This issue is fully endorsed by a NESTA-commissioned ICM poll with over 500 secondary school teachers across the UK. The vast majority (84%) consider science enquiry learning to be very important, with 87% agreeing that it can have a significant impact on pupils’ performance. However, two in three science teachers (64%) suggest that the biggest barrier to more science enquiry work is a lack of time within the context of current curriculum arrangements.
The report suggests that the misunderstandings which may exist amongst teachers and schools around health and safety issues relating to practical scientific experiments, should be challenged and rectified. The ICM poll reveals a total of 87% saying that (at least) once they have not allowed their students to undertake some form of experiment or practical work because they think current health and safety regulations prohibit them from doing so. This reinforces the recent survey commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry which found that some teaching is being inhibited by unjustified concerns about health and safety.
Commenting on the report, Jonathan Kestenbaum, NESTA’s CEO, says: “In a highly technological society such as ours the ability of learners to analyse and question in a scientific manner is increasingly important. Scientific literacy now needs to take its place alongside general literacy and numeracy as a major part of the agenda to raise standards in schools.
“The UK’s future international competitiveness will be founded on our capacity to meet and exceed ever greater demands for innovation and productivity. Our scientific research base and our general scientific literacy must be strong enough to meet the challenge of our competitors.”
Real Science focuses on the benefits of innovative approaches to science enquiry learning in education in the UK, and reports on the outcomes from projects and initiatives supported by NESTA and others. Projects include the £1m Planet Science Outreach scheme delivering hands-on practical learning experiences in ‘real-life’ environments. Participating teachers reported increased pupil concentration, confidence and communication. They noticed improved problem-solving skills, increased ability to ask relevant questions in class and stronger knowledge retention.