Science education and market needs

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 11 July 2006.

In his recent comment on the state of science teaching, Boris Johnson makes some very good points, and I have to agree with him that science education in the state sector is poor. I’ll come to that later, after challenging the claim of the “boffins” that there is, or will be, a shortage of scientists and engineers.

Young people deciding on what to study at university are being perfectly rational in choosing subjects other than science, and the primary reason why university physics and chemistry departments are closing is because of a lack of demand for physicists and chemists. Look at what’s available to graduates in these subjects: mostly low-level technical jobs for young geeks and lab rats, with poor salaries and little scope for advancement. There are also few opportunities for those with advanced degrees, who, if they cannot secure academic tenure, are often discriminated against in the job market.

Politicians and industrialists go on about the knowledge-based economy and the need for more scientists and engineers, but this simply isn’t true. With virtually no manufacturing industry left to speak of in the UK, most technical jobs are IT-related, and such positions require little or no engineering knowledge. Employers expect universities to churn out graduates not educated in science, engineering and the liberal arts, but trained in the use of software technologies with limited shelf lives, and already possessing project management and accountancy skills.

The market needs a core of top class scientists and engineers, but in the real world, cream floats on the top of a much larger mass of fluid. British universities are producing plenty of science and engineering graduates and postgraduates, many of whom end up working in fields that don’t require their expertise. Unless graduates can find suitable and rewarding work that makes use of their talents and skills, why should they bother studying science to degree level, especially when they must now pay significant sums in tuition fees, and for subsistence, during their university courses?

Science and engineering has become de-professionalised in the UK, and the situation elsewhere in Europe is also deteriorating. Salary levels here are much less than in the US, and little better in continental Europe. School students have become wise to this, and so are turning away from science, deciding instead to study subjects that will provide them with better salaries and benefits, and more opportunities for career development.

And the cause of this de-professionalisation? I suspect that there are many and varied reasons, some of which may be related to science envy, and a fear of having too many clever people in positions of influence making life difficult for the managerial class who think they run the country. The principal reason must, however, be the parlous state of science education, and Boris Johnson has identified a few areas of concern.

Among my former colleagues in scientific research, I know of a number who have since moved into teaching, but none of them have opted to teach in state schools. Why is that? Because entry level salaries are laughable, the system is rigid and inflexible, and the bureaucracy an absolute nightmare. Few science graduates, with the infectious enthusiasm necessary to teach the subject effectively to children, are choosing education as a profession. What we have is a situation in which teaching is seen by many graduates as a last resort, and the consequences of this are clear.

When I was some 10 years into my life as a professional scientist, I continued to receive mailings from teacher training agencies in the UK exhorting me to “make a difference” and switch to teaching. If I’d felt then that I had an overriding vocation to teach in schools, I might have been tempted by the promise of a student grant and loan, topped up with an extra couple of thousand as a sweetener for specialising in physics, and then a non-negotiable starting salary of around £s;15k. Although I was indeed keen on teaching, and engaged in education and outreach as part of my research work, these offers went straight into the circular filing cabinet, accompanied by the utterance of a few choice oaths.

So what can be done to rectify the problems of state education? Short of breaking it up, I’m not sure if much can be done, but I remain a believer in the virtues of non-selective education funded from general taxation. If this is to survive, however, we must move beyond the rigid and centralised model of old, and, with the line between private and public blurred by state subsidy for independent schools in the form of charitable status, question the fundamental basis of “state” education.

The government plans to make changes to the way in which state schools in England are managed, but that’s only part of the problem, and in any case I’m not convinced that the proposals go far enough. To attract both quality young graduates and experienced professionals into the teaching profession will require that the existing system of collective bargaining over salaries and career progression be scrapped, and replaced with a market-based solution that provides real incentives for those with shortage skills and useful experience.

If there’s one single change that could improve the quality of secondary science education and encourage more young people to study science, it would have to be the abolition of the GCSE and A Level system, and its replacement with the Baccalaureate. School students should not be forced to choose between science, arts and humanities, but rather encouraged to study all. The government were advised to adopt such a policy and promote the Baccalaureate, but insisted on upholding the so-called A Level ‘gold standard’. If the current Edexcel physics syllabus is anything to go by, that gold standard is fast degenerating to base metal level.

Declaration of interest: I am a PhD physicist with a background in both university-based research and education, and engineering support in the private sector. I’ve taught undergraduate and postgraduate students, and also provided private remedial tuition to A Level students failed by poor school teaching. I have a passion for science, and encourage people of all ages and abilities to study science, whether or not they can make practical use of it in their working lives. Science is a creative endeavour not dissimilar to art, and a knowledge of science and mathematics increases one’s appreciation of the world and sense of wonder at it.