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How can we help every student to always be switched on by science?

Any subject taught in schools needs to balance the future needs of that sector with all of the others. So with science we need some students to go on to further study research and employment in clearly science-related fields; as astrophysicists, dieticians, technicians and all the rest. But more than this we also need every single student to go into their lives with at least a basic knowledge about science and a passion for some parts of it; whether that’s about really understanding how your bicycle works, a full appreciation of your 4G smart phone, or green fingered experiments in the garden. I’m not sure we’re achieving those wider goals yet for science.

Compare this to English, where any adult citizen should hopefully leave school with both basic literacy skills and a love of reading for pleasure (for example see the Read on Get on campaign). Sometimes this can be about national strategies and dedicated English lessons, but often it can be about Literacy Coordinators in schools weaving those concepts and techniques into the teaching practices of others. It’s a similar story with maths, where the majority of students choose not to study it further at the earliest opportunity. Many schools are starting to use mathematical concepts in other lessons and subjects, whether it’s practical projects, balancing finances or learning games. The evidence is growing that good quality teaching rests on the teacher having deep knowledge of their subject, being an expert at teaching, and also knowing how to best help colleagues teach elements of their subject too. The first two parts are hard enough and we’ve a long way to go. But that third bit can require the development of quite sophisticated leadership skills.

There are two inter-related areas we can focus on to help improve this situation, one at a national level and the other actually in schools.

Firstly at a national level we need government ministers, officials and other policy-makers to talk about English, Maths and Science, rather than just the first two. Science remains the poor cousin of the three in the national discourse. This is easy to fix and costs nothing.

The second national issue is more difficult. We need the government to invest in our schools, rather than allow a real-terms cut of 12% as the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has predicted. Schools can take on the challenges of rising standards and greater accountability but they need help to grow their capacity.

Thirdly we need government to help make being a teacher and a school leader more attractive, especially to science graduates. We’re facing a perfect storm of a rising economy that offers careers in better-paid professions, a falling number of graduates, and a rising number of school students. Issues such as workload and pay need proper attention.

Fourthly we (finally) need a long-term national STEM strategy. One that has a clear definition of STEM at each education stage, that systematically monitors the ‘pipeline’ of people with STEM skills, identifies any gaps and properly evaluates the solutions. It’s time to go beyond ad-hoc pet schemes and projects.

On a smaller scale and influenced by those four national issues there is also a lot that schools can do, with both middle and senior leaders key players. Science is currently taught in a range of different ways, with dedicated science teachers in most secondaries and a tiny number of primaries. Whereas in most primaries non-specialist class teachers are teaching some science to their own class. But even this picture is by no means universal, I’ve heard of one large secondary without a single science teacher which is unsurprising as this is one of the most challenging roles to recruit for, particularly in some schools and localities.

Whichever model is adopted (or available), it’s important that all those teaching science have access to excellent science teaching expertise. For example the Wellcome Trust is promoting the idea that every primary school should have (or have access to) a Science Leader. This is a rightly ambitious target but is within that challenging context of constrained resources and teacher supply.

Within schools it’s important that they’re make good use of the appropriate evidence, with middle leaders often well placed to explore the options for improving science teaching for their students.

Given the limited supply of new science teachers, good Continuous Professional Development and Learning (CPDL) becomes more important than ever. However, it is hard to judge the impact of CPDL in advance or to prove it afterwards, leaving cash-strapped schools with difficult choices to make. Beyond science teaching there are wider challenges with CPD as too often it is generic rather than truly subject-led. Budget constraints require school leaders to really prioritise CPD, to spend their money wisely, as well as funding release time for CPD and subject leadership. I’ve also heard that the way Performance Related Pay is implemented in some schools it can discourage teachers from spending time away from their own students.

Beyond school it’s not just about science lessons and science teachers. There are a dizzying array of other science resources available. For example STEMNET ambassadors are a network of local experts who use science in their day jobs or studies, and who are passionate about sharing that experience. There are enrichment activities such as CREST the ‘STEM Duke of Edinburgh awards’. There are also new developments such as Q&As with experts online through the I’m a scientist initiative.

Helping students and teachers interact with those who are actively using science in their work can help to engage and enlighten them about the realities of the full range of future careers and industries out there, beyond the simplistic lens of ‘men in white coats’. To that end I hope the £25m funding the government has put into the new Careers Company will include a focus on both primary and science.

Proposals for busy school leaders have to be clear and coherent, which can be challenging given the size and diversity of the STEM community. Many school leaders are looking forward to working with you all though, together we can help every student get switched on by science.

(a version of this blog first appeared through my former day-job, for the Science Association)

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