Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Concern at the numbers taking sciences

Ina recent article from the Guardian (15.02.2011), the education editor, Jeevan Vasagar, describes how the Royal Society is calling for A-levels to be overhauled to tackle the declining number of teenagers studying sciences.

Across the UK, just 17% of 16 to 18 -year olds took one or more science A-levels in 2009, a report by the society says, and British universities produce fewer than 10,000 science graduates each year. It is calling for a broader qualification that would give more teenagers the chance to pursue science and maths as part of a whole course of study.

The report indicates that an increasing number of schools in England do not enter any candidates in physics or maths. The picture is different in Scotland where 90% of schools enter students for physics.

 It would be interesting to find out where NI sits in relation to the figures for England and Scotland.

 A decreasing number of FE colleges are offering physics, no doubt under pressure not to offer classes to small numbers.

There is real difficulty in replacing physics teachers who retire. Fewer taking physics and maths at university results in fewer graduates with the knowledge to be science and maths teachers.

The report calls for an A-level style bacculareate that would allow teenagers to study science and maths alongside other subjects. Commenting on the findings the chair of the Royal Society education committee, Athene Donald said;

At a time of economic uncertainty, when science and scientists can play a key role in revitalising the UK's financial outlook, it is deeply worrying to find that numbers of A-level science students are at such low levels.  There can be no doubt that the lack of science and mathematics specialist teachers play a significant role. 

Schools minister Nick Gibb said recently:

As other countries make vast improvements in science and maths education, the UK continues to fall down the league tables and we now languish at 27th in the world for maths, and 16th for science.

Why do science graduates go into the City?

In the previous piece Jeevan Vasagar was lamenting the dip in the number of young people taking on the key sciences. In the next article, Jonathan Black, director of career service, Oxford university poses the questions that even when young people follow a science route a significant number fail to follow through into purely scientific careers.

The current Government has put financial considerations at the heart of students' decisions about HEd: why should the Government be surprised when students select their careers on the same financial basis?

Quite regularly in the news media the shout goes up from say a leading engineering employer that his organisation has a dire need for skilled people but such people cannot be sourced in the developed world! Students are voting with their feet: engineering companies pay about £25,000 starting salaries whereas City firms pay anything from £35,000 to £45,000. The government cannot really be surprised if students select the fastest career option to pay off their unwelcome debt. The primary solution for engineering companies is simple: if they offer market rates they will arguably attract more talent.

Ministers appear frustrated that certain groups, notably those studying STEM subjects are not advancing to STEM careers. 'Pay the best to get the brightest' could be applied to scientists and mathematicians.  One could argue that government investment in companies working on climate change, transport, energy and health care is at least as important for the UK's economy and well being as its recent investments in financial services.

Lesson Idea

Making the case for science subjects needs to start when pupils arrive in post primary education. Examine the current strategy within your own school. Suggest to the pupils that they develop a strategy given the importance of sciece to the UK economy.Compare the difference.

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