The millions of pounds invested in programmes to attract teachers into science and mathematics and provide high-quality professional development through the Science Learning Centres “really seems to be paying off”, but “we must keep investing in teachers,” Sir John Holman of the Wellcome Trust has said.
Sir John, a senior fellow for education at the Wellcome Trust
and former director of the National Science Learning Centre
, said that the National Audit Office has confirmed that professional development at the Science Learning Centres is directly related to higher attainment.
Five years ago school science and maths looked to be in long-term decline he observed. But the subsequent investment of £140 million under the previous government’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programme “now seems to be paying dividends, with this year’s A-level numbers suggesting that the decline has been well and truly reversed”.
Since 2006, while the total number of A-levels taken has grown by less than eight per cent, there has been a 40 per cent increase in pupils studying maths at A-level. Likewise the numbers choosing ‘triple science’ – physics, chemistry and biology – as separate GCSEs has increased substantially.
The economic outlook and advent of university tuition fees are driving the growth he said, as “students and their parents realise that choosing STEM subjects is a good bet for securing a well-paid job”.
Sir John praised teachers “who meet students day in and day out and … who can do most to inspire”.
However, “this isn’t the time to be complacent,” he warned. He cited Nuffield Foundation research
showing that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland fewer than one in five of students study mathematics post-16, the lowest levels of participation in a comparative study of 24 ‘developed’ countries.
“In the end, everything comes down to good teaching. The Wellcome Trust’s research
(pdf format opens in new window) found that around 40 per cent of students were put off science because they found it difficult or boring, and other research makes it clear that girls are especially motivated by good teaching and put off by boring teaching,” he said.
“We must keep investing in teachers,” Sir John wrote. “Too often, mathematics, physics and chemistry are taught by teachers without specialist qualifications, so the government must intensify the drive to recruit well-qualified teachers in these subjects. Those teachers who are already in schools need the chance to get out of the classroom to attend the Science Learning Centres and other professional development opportunities, so they can keep up with the breathtaking development of science and learn new ideas for practical work and the relation of science to the world outside.”
He cited the fact that twelve per cent of “the top-rated scientific research” comes out of the UK. “To keep that position, we need world-class science in our schools as well as in our universities, and the way to achieve that is to invest more and more in the one resource that will make all the difference – teachers.”