The science crisis: how to promote science and raise achievement

There’s a growing concern, both nationally and globally, that there are simply not enough scientists around to sustain the society of the future. Yet we can’t wait for governments and politicians to develop various initiatives. We must act now, in our schools, if we are to change anything. We won’t persuade youngsters to pursue scientific careers (including teaching) if we don’t inspire them and give them a thorough grounding in the sciences at school.

Here are a few tips to enable the science subjects to grow and flourish in your schools, based on practical experience as a teacher, head of science, head teacher, governor and an HMI.

1. Try untangling the sciences

Overnight, with the arrival of the National Curriculum, ‘science’ became a subject and biology, chemistry and physics became extinct. Science is not a subject; it’s a collection of three distinctively different, colourful subjects. After all no one would claim that French and German sound the same, so why do we think that biology, chemistry and physics are somehow the same as each other? This might seem a little pedantic; after all, what’s in a word? But by disentangling the subjects, much of what follows will come naturally.

Most students will find one of the subjects more difficult or less interesting than the others. By labelling the whole lot as ‘science’ students can’t distinguish between the three, so if they become a little ‘switched off’ in one subject the other two go down with it. By labelling the three subjects separately at least there’s a chance that they will find two (or even one) appealing, which is better that none!

Try identifying the three subjects separately on the timetable. After all, you’d expect geography and RE to be specified as such. And French, German and Spanish. So why do the science subjects suffer by being coagulated into one so called subject?

2. Allow teachers to be passionate

Without question good teaching requires passion from the teacher. If you have a teacher that’s passionate about chemistry then allow that teacher to teach chemistry. There is a misguided notion that all ‘science’ teachers should take their turn in teaching all three subjects. In fact that’s calculated to short change our students!

Of course, exigencies of the timetable dictate that the teachers have to be flexible and teach their ‘second’ subject from time to time, but that is not the same thing as insisting on it for its own sake.

Besides, whilst passionate teachers will inspire a love of their subject in students the reverse is dangerous; a disinterested teacher or one who lacks knowledge or confidence in a subject will have a very negative impact on their students which will probably stay with them for life.

3. Give Year 7 a flying start

Children from primary school will probably have never encountered a science laboratory or been taught by a specialist. This is the time to capture the imagination of these youngsters whilst they are still curious and willing to learn. My love of physics and mathematics undoubtedly sprang from my first few days in secondary school. Unless we inspire our Year 7 from the outset we are very unlikely to fuel enthusiasm later.

Think about breaking with the usual school timetabling routine. The timetable starts with the option subjects because they’re hard to fit. This inevitably means the Sixth Form (where applicable) and Years 10 and 11. Then the core KS4 subjects are built in. Year 9 follows next, then Year 8 and by the time Year 7 is reached the timetabler’s options are limited and one can find all sorts of compromises – classes split between two teachers for example. In many schools I’ve visited the best teachers have been allocated to the older students. No one denies that the exam classes need a well-constructed timetable and the best teachers. This is a crucial stage for these students and they deserve to obtain the best qualifications they can. But try making Year 7 the next priority.

4. Grab the best staff

It goes without saying that we need to recruit the best science teachers available. Think about appointing staff before the closing date if the right one comes along. You can always make it clear that applications may close early in the event of a vacancy being filled. If a promising application for a physics post lands on your desk have you the courage to invite him or her in straight away and make an appointment (if they’re suitable) before the deadline.

Few schools are this brave, yet it’s the early school that gets the physicist. Creative Education’s enlightening course Effective Recruitment and Interviewing takes the best practice from education as well as lessons learnt from other industries including business and the Civil Service to help you manage a process that’s rigorous but not rigid.

On the other side of the coin I’d never advocate appointing the wrong person. Better to run with a gap for a while than be saddled with competency problems.

5. Inspire your teachers

Science is evolving all the time. Inspiring lessons will be taught by those teachers who are up to date and able to deliver their schemes of work to take account of newsworthy issues and discoveries. (As I write this for instance we have Major Peake in space.)

Encourage the subject departments to take a regular journal, follow the latest developments online and look after their development. Creative Education offer a suite of training courses ranging from The Outstanding Newly or Recently Qualified Science Teacher aimed at those embarking on a successful teaching career through Aspiring to role of Head of Science and Leading a Successful Science Department.

6. Make it real

Students often learn best if the subject can be put into context. There are countless opportunities for liaising with local industries and businesses. Many will be only too pleased to help and there might even be funding around to assist with liaison schemes; it’s certainly worth one of the Science team finding out. Active, hands on science centres make for a memorable day out, such as the Exploratory Centre in Bristol.

7. The physics problem

I’ll end with a knotty problem: the shortage of physics specialists. Here are three practical strategies you can try:

  • Advertise posts early and appoint early. As we’ve discussed, there’s a limited pool of suitable teachers so you need to be the first to appoint. It’s even worth the risk of being overstaffed.
  • Think about possibly combining a physics job with maths as a second subject rather than biology or chemistry. (That might in any case solve any potential overstaffing problem.) At a pinch even consider making it a 100% physics post.
  • Refine the skills of the existing science (or maths) teachers. Physics for the Non-Specialist at Key Stages 3 and 4 is a popular and effective course which aims to give delegates the confidence to build on their existing teaching skills by looking at useful strategies for teaching physics as well as giving attendees a thorough grounding in the subject itself.

To learn other ways to raise attainment and develop your CPD, view all science courses.

More about Creative Education Trainer Thomas Packer
Thomas has been teaching for over 30 years in a variety of settings. His specialist subjects are physics, mathematics and further mathematics.

He has been a School Leader for 17 years and his last post was as Founding Headmaster of the West London Free School, the first Free School, to sign a funding agreement with the Secretary of State. He had just 92 days to open the school in the spotlight of intense Media debate and with considerable hostility. Tom also has experience of School Governance, having served on five Boards over a period of 25 years; for seven years he was Clerk to the Governors and Company Secretary.

Thomas has also served as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Education, specialising in science and maths. Publications include Managing Schools in the 21st Century and (as contributor) Establishing and leading new types of school: challenges and opportunities for leaders and leadership. He is a Chartered Physicist and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics. He holds the National Professional Qualification for Headship along with qualifications in Employment and Education Law.