The scientific challenge faced by schools

In British Science Week, David Anderson, head of science at St Margaret’s School, lays out the key requirements for equipping pupils with the tools for a successful, science-focused future

Much of the modern debate around the teaching of science is about providing children with the critical skills needed to cope with the scientific challenges of everyday life – so-called “scientific literacy” – but this term in itself can be confusing.

Generally, it is seen as providing children with the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and the processes required for personal decision-making. It should allow the population to cope more readily with problems through the making of intelligent and informed decisions that will affect the quality of their future lives. It is not seen as the knowledge of lots of science, but the understanding of how science really works. This can present a challenge for schools: striving to support pupils in achieving outstanding exam grades, while simultaneously not allowing pressure of time to leave practical skills neglected.

The balance between exam grades and practical skills

Scientific literacy might include understanding the terminology required to, for example, compare contrasting views in newspapers and magazines, or comprehending the process of scientific enquiry. The national curriculum reflects these values today, and the current GCSE and A-level courses are arguably better than ever at addressing these issues. From Key Stage 2, right through to A-level, there is a gradual development of the skills that schools are trying to teach through the vehicle of science.

Schools, however, often find themselves having to balance these lofty ideals with the expectations and demands of parents, particularly in the case of those who pay to have their children educated in private schools in order to achieve the highest marks in exams. At Key Stage 2, this is to gain admission to their senior school of choice; at Key Stage 3, it is so they can choose a separate science at GCSE level; at Key Stage 4 it is to take up a place at a top senior school, as defined by the league tables. The demands at A-level are even higher for those children hoping to gain admission into a top Russell Group university.

David Anderson

Unrealistic pressure can impact wellness

This often manifests itself in those parents who may not understand the value of the skills schools are trying to teach. Some parents see the route to improvement as being reflected by the amount of time their children spend with their textbook, or yet another expensive study guide. Unfortunately, the undue and often unrealistic pressure placed on pupils today can lead to mental health-related issues. As a result, schools are increasingly having to teach pupils about resilience and the ability to view things in perspective, in order to cope with pressurised situations.

Many top universities are looking for students with positive attitudes, passion for the subject, independent thinking, perseverance, inquiring minds, teamwork, and critical thinking ability. The good news is there are many great schools producing pupils ready for studying science at university, thanks to their independent thinking; the key is to nurture pupils who can achieve good grades, as well as possess the skills needed in day-to-day life. These tend to develop particularly well at A-level, where the sciences are taught in a more hands-on manner, within small classes, and with the support of highly experienced, specialist and passionate teachers.

Last year we ran a whole series looking at STEM role models for girls, beginning with TeenTech Teacher of the Year, Daljit Kaur

Alumnae can be great role models

Over recent years, subject heads in the sciences have been expected to be something of an expert in their field of study. They should therefore be continually drip-feeding knowledge and information – about specific fields of study, university courses, and possible careers – to their pupils. At St Margaret’s, this has been particularly true of the Biomedical Society, which is having a great impact on the aspirations and choices of our science pupils; we plan to expand this into engineering fields in the near future.

While there is often a perception – based on past headlines – that the number of pupils going on to study science-related degree courses is falling, recent evidence does not support this. In fact, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency has revealed that the number of STEM students in undergraduate and postgraduate roles has risen over the past five years, despite the fall in overall numbers. The following graph comes from the Campaign for Science and Engineering:

STEM student numbers on the rise

We are also seeing more girls moving into science-related subjects, which is very encouraging; they now genuinely believe that they are able to compete on an equal footing with boys, both in university applications and in science-related career prospects. One of the ways we strive to promote this attitude is to point out the recent successes of our pupils, both at university and in their careers. We regularly invite alumni to address our pupils – they are the very best role models out there.

The good news is there are many great schools producing pupils ready for studying science at university

Science for the future

It is unlikely that the content of science specifications will change much over the next few years. As we move away from AS exams, it is likely that there will be a greater emphasis on skills, as opposed to exam results.  At the moment, despite many comments to the contrary, the bottom line is that if you achieve excellent exam grades, you will have a strong chance of achieving a place at a good university.

In future years, pupils will be completing their UCAS applications without AS or A-level grades, and hopefully universities will be looking specifically for skills in their potential applicants – such as mathematical, analytical, evaluative, practical, investigative and creative – across all of the science subjects. As we move towards more entrance exams for universities, one also hopes that these are the skills they will be testing students on, rather than just content.

David Anderson is head of science at St Margaret’s School

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