Course attracts physics stars into teaching

A physics/teaching degree has produced its first graduates

September 19, 2013

Source: Alamy

Share the passion: those who follow Imperial College’s course do most of the regular physics programme but also earn qualified teacher status, so they can teach right away

A national newspaper article reported last month that the UK faces a “desperate shortage” of science and maths teachers and painted a picture of hundreds of thousands of school pupils being taught by untrained teachers because of a “chronic” shortage of new recruits.

On the same day, Imperial College London was congratulating two students who had become the first cohort to have completed a new course designed specifically to counter this problem.

Carol Yang and Hugo Horlick are the inaugural graduates from the BSc physics with science education course, which Imperial says is “the first degree of its kind in England and Wales”.

Under the programme, students study for a physics degree, which covers 90 per cent of Imperial’s BSc physics programme and is fully accredited by the Institute of Physics. But they also gain qualified teacher status (QTS), allowing them to teach science at state-maintained and special schools in England and Wales without the need for a further postgraduate qualification. The training in secondary education is provided by Imperial’s teacher training partner, Canterbury Christ Church University.

Mark Hardman, programme director for the teacher training aspects of the course and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Canterbury Christ Church, believes that unlike other undergraduate science education courses, the degree’s main focus is subject knowledge.

He said that existing courses that try to combine teacher training with science degrees could be described as “teaching with a little bit of physics”.

“Quite often people want to go further in physics and see how far their academic journey can take them without going into teaching. Part of [the reason for] that is a misconception that teaching is not as academic as or is less rewarding than just doing research.”

Teaching is certainly demanding, Mr Hardman said, but “in a different way: it’s not necessarily academically challenging, but it’s more emotionally challenging. The course gets highly able physicists into the classroom and then we can start nurturing that understanding of what teaching is about.”

He added that, in the past, many people believed that teaching was solely about the “transmission of knowledge”. Consequently, it has taken a long time to appreciate that it is much more “dynamic and involves a lot of extra challenges”.

Ms Yang, who has taken up a teaching job at a London school since graduating, said it was a combination of her passion for physics and the professional qualification and skill set she was getting with QTS that convinced her to pursue the course.

“I decided I would have [a physics degree] and a whole load of professional, organisational and communication skills from the teaching element, so even if I didn’t go into teaching, it gave me an advantage over just doing straight physics,” she said.

Lead them down the career path

Getting more bright science stars teaching in schools is what the course is all about. “By offering it within the context of an undergraduate programme, we challenge students to think about the possibility of teaching perhaps earlier than they would otherwise have done,” said Martin McCall, professor of theoretical optics at Imperial and academic lead on the degree. “If it’s integrated within a professional qualification, it enhances the prospect of them actually taking that career path.”

Reiterating concerns about the shortage of suitably qualified physics teachers, he said: “The main, underlying objective is to make a difference in schools that are not well provided in terms of qualified physics teachers.

“If we can start to address that, then it can have a snowball effect. When I visit schools there’s no shortage of bright kids, really enthusiastic and quite switched on about physics, but there’s definitely a lack of confident, qualified physics teachers.”

Professor McCall and Mr Hardman pointed out that the degree complements an existing initiative between Imperial and Canterbury Christ Church called Inspire – a full-time, 10-month postgraduate certificate in education that places top scientists from a physics, chemistry or engineering background into classrooms.

In a period in which teacher training routes have been placed under the microscope and tension has risen between academics and the government, Mr Hardman – who works on Inspire and is also a member of the tutor team for Teach First, which aims to get top graduates into teaching – said the disagreements should not overshadow the bigger picture.

“I’m more interested in training teachers. I’m happy to diversify the ways in as long as it doesn’t put people off,” he said.

“It’s not like we’re setting up a model that we want to protect for ourselves; people have started talking to us about it. It’s still early days, but there shouldn’t be any reason why we couldn’t roll it out in a broader approach without creating yet another route into teaching.”

Sam Twiselton, director of the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University, said the programme was something “particularly special”, adding that she “strongly supports” initiatives such as this.

“To have a world-leading university in this field offering an opportunity like this must be a good thing and will certainly make a great contribution to the profession,” she said. “These are just the kinds of partnerships that are needed.”

The right formula

The initiative was also praised by John Leach, pro vice-chancellor and dean of the Faculty of Development and Society at Sheffield Hallam and an advocate for science education, who thought it could help to address the “desperate shortage” of physics specialists teaching in maintained schools.

“Initiatives such as this one may help to avoid recent improvements in [science] teacher recruitment being overturned as responsibility for recruitment moves out of the universities,” he said.

He added that schools had “a strong vested interest” in recruiting trainee physics teachers through School Direct – the government scheme to train teachers in schools – but may struggle, “particularly if they are geographically located a long way away from a university that trains physicists”.

Although it is still a small scheme – two more students have been recruited for this academic year, with aims to raise the number to five and gradually expand further – Professor McCall said that once the model is shown to have worked, there would be an uptake in other subjects. Mr Hardman added that they were looking to possibly expand into chemistry next because “we can teach those side by side”.

“We could have five chemists and five physicists in a couple of years’ time,” he said. “We’ve had interest from mathematicians; that’s slightly more difficult, but there’s nothing in principle to stop it.”

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