Short-term political goals driving government policy, says Royal Society

UK government reforms of school education have done little to increase the number of children with maths or science (STEM) qualifications, according to the UK’s national academy of sciences.

The Royal Society’s State of the Nation report, published today, accuses the government of seeking short-term political gains rather than considering the long-term needs of science education in the UK.

The report finds that the proportion of post-GCSE students taking STEM subjects in further education continues to fall across much of the UK. In chemistry, the proportion of 17-year olds going beyond GCSE level in England has fallen from 6.4 per cent in 1996 to 5.3 per cent in 2007, with similar trends in Northern Ireland and Wales. 

Post-16 participation in STEM subjects remains highest in Scotland, where, the Royal Society says, reforms have resulted in increased numbers of teachers with specialist science qualifications as well as the opportunity for students to focus on specific subjects at 14 rather than simply study for a generic science award.

’England is belatedly following the success of the Scottish education system by training teachers to specialise in particular scientific fields,’ says Michael Reiss, director of Education at the Royal Society. ’It is a shame that it has taken [England] so long to follow suit.’

Reiss also says the new Science Diploma, a four tier educational system aimed at providing broad science education to students that is set to be rolled out in three years, needs to be run as a two year pilot scheme first. ’Unfortunately, the government have no intention to do this,’ he adds.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) said that the number of pupils studying maths and science A-levels are increasing. ’It is right that the curriculum and qualifications adapt over time to bring them up to date so they are relevant and useful for young people,’ a DCSF spokesperson said. ’It does not follow that academic rigour is sacrificed as a result.’

Fred Campbell