Caution kills science teaching, MPs hear

April 19, 2002

Science's falling popularity is due in part to overcautious school teachers shielding their pupils from laboratory work, MPs heard this week.

Giving evidence to the Commons science and technology select committee, a panel of academics said that rather than being told about health and safety then let loose on the equipment, pupils were being sheltered from practical work. The comments were echoed by Graham Speechley of Benteler Automotive, who gave evidence on behalf of employers to the committee's inquiry into science education from 14 to 19.

Ian Haines, chair of the UK deans of science committee and dean of science at the University of North London, said: "We are very unhappy. There is a suggestion that schools don't do practical work because of health and safety rules. Somebody needs to look at this in great detail. Practical work also requires good laboratory facilities. There is a need for expenditure - school laboratories and practical work cost money."

Tom Ruxton of Staffordshire University, representing the Engineering Professors' Council, said: "There should be more project work and more interdisciplinary work. A lot of young people find laboratory work boring."

Earlier, the committee was told that social aspects of science - such as understanding controversies, evaluating claims, risks and probabilities, and scientific methodology - should be taught in schools.

While broadly welcoming the idea, the panel warned against squeezing out basic science for science studies. Professor Haines said: "Scientific literacy needs to be based on scientific fact."

Stuart Brown of the University of Nottingham's medical school said: "The knowledge base has collapsed recently. We feel there is a decline."

The panel also expressed concern about literacy, numeracy, whether GNVQ grades were comparable across the country and plagiarism.

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