John Holman, former director of the UK's National Science Learning Centre, is optimistic about the current state of chemistry education. But important caveats remain

John Holman, former director of the UK’s National Science Learning Centre, is optimistic about the current state of chemistry education. But important caveats remain


Each year I scrutinise the A-level and GCSE science results with nerdish excitement. I look keenly at the numbers taking each subject and the percentage of high grades achieved. This year had some very good news for chemistry. The growth in numbers taking A-level chemistry increased by 3.7 per cent, continuing a growth trend that has been apparent for several years. This has reversed the long decline that we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s: the stories of closing university chemistry departments are happily behind us, at least for now. Indeed, at the University of York our problem is the reverse: overflowing lecture theatres as unprecedented numbers of well-qualified students want to come and study chemistry with us. 

This growth in numbers is partly driven by the fact that more youngsters are taking the decision to stay on to study A-levels across all subjects. But I do believe that we are seeing the beginning of a renaissance in the popularity of chemistry and other sciences in schools and colleges, and this can only be a good thing for universities and employers.

There was more good news for chemistry at GCSE. The numbers of students taking separate subject chemistry rose by 30 per cent, continuing further strong growth in previous years. This is particularly important because separate subject chemistry provides an excellent foundation for further study at A-level. A few years ago, separate subject chemistry GCSE was largely the preserve of independent and selective schools; now we are heading towards a position where it will be available in every state school. 

But there is still a long way to go, and there are many challenges. There are serious shortages of specialist chemistry teachers in state schools: only 25 per cent of science teaching is done by chemistry specialists, while chemistry makes up about 33 per cent of the science curriculum. The shortage of specialist physics teachers is even worse.

Subject expertise

Even for those teachers who are chemistry specialists, it is important that subject knowledge is kept up to date, and the mission of the Science Learning Centres, in partnership with the RSC, is to update and improve the subject knowledge of chemistry teachers. But unlike most other professions, continuing professional development is not yet embedded in schools and we have a long way to go before headteachers see investment in the subject expertise of their teaching force as a priority. 

The new coalition government seems to understand the importance of subject expertise. In October the government will be launching a radical review of the national curriculum, and judging from ministers’ statements both before and after the election there will be a renewed emphasis on subject knowledge and expertise.  

Ministers have also declared that they want to re-connect the process of curriculum development to subject experts in academia and industry. There is an opportunity during this coming curriculum review for Chemistry World  readers in universities and industry to exert an influence on what the science and chemistry curricula should contain.  

Let’s think about this. What are the essential elements of chemistry that someone leaving school at 16, with no intention of taking the study of the subject any further, should have mastered? Is it simply about the facts and laws - the elements of the periodic table, the basics of atomic structure, the principles of chemical change - or should the curriculum go beyond this? Should chemistry GCSE require some kind of understanding of the many ways that chemistry is applied in industry and in students’ lives? Should students have a grasp not only of chemical facts and theories, but also of the methods that chemists use to gain new understanding? Should an understanding of the scientific method - making precise measurements, doing experiments, dealing with errors, and drawing conclusions even when results are variable - be a core part of the curriculum? For students who will take their study of chemistry no further than age 16, its main value may be in helping them to make sense of the kind of scientific issues which will affect their lives - climate change, diet and nutrition, drug development. While a strong emphasis on subject knowledge is welcome, there is a risk that in radically revising the curriculum on this basis, learning about the scientific process may be lost.  

With a major curriculum review in the offing, I would be very interested to hear views of professional chemists outside the education world on these matters. 

Sir John Holman was director of the UK’s National Science Learning Centre until September 2010. He teaches chemistry at the University of York and can be contacted at