Nancy Rothwell

October 15, 2004

A lack of interest in science is contributing to a crisis in UK industry, and it can be traced back to what children do in class

Schoolchildren today are faced with many more choices than I ever had. I am told that media studies, business studies and psychology are quite popular, along with archaeology and forensic science (TV programmes have a lot to answer for). Classical Greek and Latin don't seem to be doing so well, and the sciences - maths, physics and chemistry - are in sad decline. It is said that students find them difficult and uninteresting.

This is curious, because I found maths and Latin easier and more fascinating than history or French. Maybe I'm unusual. The great thing about maths was that there was rather little to revise, so you could enjoy the spring bank holiday in the knowledge that either you would be able to solve the equations or you wouldn't, and there wasn't much you could do about it. Latin had a logic that defies almost every other language - learn the principles and you are halfway there, and the vocabulary is often possible to guess, but perhaps it's not everyone's cup of tea.

Maybe there was something else that was different about my experience (more than 30 years ago) and that of most school kids today. Miss Shaw who taught us maths was an elderly lady, and very religious; she wore her hair in a bun and had frumpy clothes. But she was kindly and patient and, above all, she was passionate about maths. Latin was taught by a trendy young woman who wore miniskirts and had a passion for lime green - we thought she was great. Mr Irwin, our physics teacher, told stories of space travel and nuclear reactors, and the chemistry teacher, Mr Miller, took great delight in dangerous experiments, mainly involving explosions of the type that would be impossible with today's health and safety regulations. We played with mercury on the bench, dropped sodium into water and ignited various explosive mixtures - there were no serious injuries that I recall. It was all very exciting.

Of course, we had to learn the facts, but they were explained by real enthusiasts (albeit eccentric ones) who had trained in their subject and had a contagious passion and fascination for it. They encouraged students to think, be creative and explore. And, as far as I can remember, the curriculum they taught was clear and well defined.

All too often now these disciplines are taught by staff with little training - biologists have to teach chemistry or maths, often swotting up on the information before the class and trying to meet a demanding syllabus. Maybe it's not surprising that school kids are turned off. I visited Harrow School to give a talk to its sixthformers about biology and was stunned by the quality of the labs (the envy of many university departments) and the expertise of the staff (most had PhDs and were on 24-hour call), who cover the syllabus in the first half of the year, leaving the second half to discuss and debate issues. What a contrast to the majority of the schools I visit. These are less privileged and "science" teachers trained in one discipline teach many subjects to large classes, with limited lab facilities and no time for the really exciting bits of science.

This may just signify a shift from physical sciences but it's a serious one. I would be sorry to lose Classics as part of mainstream teaching but I'll leave the classicists to argue their corner. To lose the very foundation of science would be a disaster for the UK.

One area of university applications that is highly buoyant is biology - my area of research. But the number of students who have a strong grounding in physical sciences seems to be in decline. Maths, physics and chemistry departments across the UK are under threat due to the decline in undergraduate mentors - a problem for them, but it also has a devastating knock-on effect. Biology and medicine are highly dependent on the physical sciences. The great successes of UK industry - pharmaceuticals, aerospace and engineering - are critically reliant on these fundamental disciplines.

Without a steady stream of talented individuals they will look, or perhaps move, abroad, or certainly recruit from those countries with rigorous and inspiring training in the sciences.

Many factors contribute to this crisis, but the root is in schools - the teachers, the curriculum and the funding. I'd like to see more Miss Shaws - she may not have been young or trendy, but she was inspiring. Few teachers today have the training, the time or the resources to offer inspiration - they desperately need support.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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