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Dan Sullivan: "Science teaching must become more inspired if we’re to create young scientists, technicians and engineers"

Not just a history lesson

A CBI report suggests that science is being squeezed out at primary level. Dan Sullivan looks at how that trend can be reversed

Posted by Stephanie Broad | December 07, 2015 | Teaching

As a head of science in a London secondary school I was always keen to instil and maintain my pupils’ interest in science, especially those students I knew would enjoy a career in physics, chemistry, geology, biology or other STEM subjects.

However, it is rare to hear a pupil in the secondary phase saying how wonderful their science lessons are or talking excitedly about developments in science. This is a major challenge for industry and education in the UK because the effects are far reaching.

Although I recognise that some great work has already been done in tackling this challenge, is it enough? Does encouraging young people to choose sciences at 16 and then perhaps a relevant apprenticeship only go so far in addressing the problem?

Children have formed a view long before 16. They’re forming their view of science as they sit in primary classes. It’s not the fault of teachers that a child was turned off science or simply didn’t even think they might have a career in science today. The ‘fault’ is complex and has been a long time in the making.

Encouraging students to choose further study in science could help to bridge the skills gap

As the CBI and Royal Society of Engineers (amongst others) have identified, by the time a child moves up to secondary level a potential talent may well have been wasted. They’ve already lost interest because science hasn’t been presented to them with sufficient ‘wow’ factor to keep their attention and nurture them for tomorrow.

The CBI’s report (‘Tomorrow’s World – Inspiring Primary Scientists’) was researched in conjunction with Brunel University. It looked at how to address this issue – of disinterested young people – earlier in the school system. Here are a few of the findings:

• 53% (of 260 primary school teachers) believe teaching science has become less of a priority over the past five years

• A third of teachers lack confidence when teaching science – only 13 percent felt very confident, while 54% were confident

• 62% want more professional development

• 39% called for a science subject specialist within their primary school

• Over a third (36%) of schools teaching science at key stage two did not provide the minimum recommended two hours of science education each week

• Only 20% are able to commit over three hours, while 7.5 percent of primary schools teach under one hour each week.

OK, it makes depressing reading, but it’s easy to see how all the other pressures might squeeze out science. After all, few primary teachers are from science backgrounds; teaching science is probably something that fills them with dread. They don’t have the knowledge and they don’t have much kit.

It’s easier to teach the history – that science, technology and engineering skills created the industrial revolution – and then leave it at that. But inertia will hold us all back because economic growth is already under threat; the skills we need have declined.

It was the need to create innovative, fun-packed, interesting and rewarding classroom environments for science teaching that led me to create the company I now run. If we can make it ‘cool’ to learn science we can’t consign the excellent CBI report to the past. (It’s a good report I just don’t want it to win the day.)

Science teaching must become more inspired if we’re to create young scientists, technicians and engineers. Primary schools need to ensure teachers’ professional development for science is regular, of a good quality and reaches a high standard. It’s critical – for both teachers and pupils – that the education system inspires interest and enthusiasm for science in particular.

It seems to me – and many others – that primary schools might be constrained by narrow targets and the need for their teachers to be ‘all-rounders’, but it shouldn’t preclude them from being supported and inspired to the same levels of confidence they need for all the other subjects they teach.

Dan Sullivan is managing director of Empiribox 

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