Karen Harries-Rees looks at the problems facing science education.

Karen Harries-Rees looks at the problems facing science education.

A vicious circle has developed in the UK. Uninspiring chemistry lessons in schools are contributing to putting students off studying chemistry at university and reducing the likelihood that they will return to schools as teachers. This needs to change.

A recent survey, carried out for the RSC, found that 44 per cent of chemistry teachers teaching key stage 4 (ages 14-16) and A-level do not have a degree, BEd or PGCE in chemistry. This amounts to a shortfall of 3670 trained chemistry teachers, which is being met by teachers from other disciplines.

And teachers are having to cope with poor facilities in many schools. A further survey found that only just over a third of school laboratories are good or excellent, while nearly half are uninspiring, and a quarter are either unsatisfactory or unsafe. Put another way, when pupils are in a laboratory their experience is unsafe, unsatisfactory or uninspiring for two-thirds of the time.

A lack of facilities is not the only problem in schools. Teachers have also reported having to cancel some practical science lessons due to bad behaviour among pupils.

It is not surprising, then, that chemistry degrees have been declining in popularity. While the number of students studying chemistry has risen, as more people go into higher education, the percentage choosing chemistry has fallen.

The quality of science education in schools is not solely to blame for this decrease. Universities must share the responsibility and do more to attract students to chemistry degrees. On a positive note, applications to chemistry degrees have risen this year for the first time since 1994.

But more of these future graduates need to be convinced that teaching is an attractive career option. To do this the issue of salary and school facilities needs to be tackled.

The UK government has addressed this in its spending review last month. It promised to ’enhance the teaching and learning of science, technology and engineering’ as part of its commitment to increase funding for science and technology from ?3.9bn in 2004-05 to ?5bn in 2007-08. This will include higher salaries for Advanced Skills Teachers in science and at least one science-specialist Higher-Level Teaching Assistant in every secondary school in England. It will also raise the ’golden hello’ for new science teachers to ?5000 for trainees.

It has also pledged to renew all secondary schools in England, including science provision in a 10-15 year programme, starting next year. It will also provide capital funding to bring school laboratories up to a satisfactory condition by 2006 and to a good or excellent standard by 2010.

A further boost for science teachers is coming through the government’s network of National Science Learning Centres. These offer continuing professional development (CPD) for science teachers with the aim of rekindling teachers’ enthusiasm for the subject and providing them with new ideas for their teaching.

But school budgets are stretched to the limit and schools may not be able to afford to send teachers on courses. And the issue remains that before these initiatives can be fully effective, a good supply of science teachers, qualified in the right subject is needed.

The UK government is taking science education seriously but there is a long way to go before we can be confident that chemistry teaching is truly able to inspire the scientists of the future.


Karen Harries-Rees, editor