New science generation needs the spark of life

August 10, 2007

Universities, Government and schools must unite to get more young people into science, say Michael Arthur and Deian Hopkin

Science, as the Prime Minister has often claimed, is key to the UK's competitive edge in economic performance. That is why the Government has been so keen to support the research infrastructure of our universities.

However, it is essential to match demand with supply. We need to bring enough young scientists of sufficient quality through primary and secondary education to develop the scientific skills our nation needs. The closure of so many of our chemistry and physics departments may have been an inevitable consequence of the relentless fall in student numbers, but this has aggravated the situation. There are encouraging signs of a renewal in the number of students applying to study maths and science this year, but that may be only one swallow in an otherwise untypical summer. We believe that the recent problem in generating the right numbers of scientists lies deeper, in the 14-to-19 education system.

Relatively few 16-year-olds stay on in full-time education in the UK compared with other developed countries (although recent statistics are mildly encouraging). The persistent high rate of unskilled teenagers represents a deep social concern and, in this fast-globalising world, is undoubtedly harmful to our economic competitiveness. The Leitch report highlighted just how far we have to go in improving our performance in providing a workforce with sufficient skills for the 21st century. This is a major national problem, and all levels of the education sector must help to find solutions.

Against this background, the Government has initiated a new style of learning and a new series of qualifications in the form of diplomas, which will start in September 2008. In the first phase, there will be five new diplomas, covering engineering; society, health and development; creative and media; IT; and construction and built environment. More subjects will follow as the qualification gathers momentum. This is a serious attempt to address a problem of national importance, and it is crucial that higher education gets acquainted with these new qualifications as soon as possible. Questions about pathways into our universities are already emerging.

It is not yet clear how many of these newly qualified students will be knocking on university doors in 2010. The content and assessment methodology for all elements of the diplomas is vitally important. This is currently nearing completion of stakeholder consultation, and more detail will soon be available for our admissions tutors to analyse and determine suitable entry criteria, inevitably creating debate about content.

Change is frequently difficult, but as Disraeli once said: "Change is inevitable in a progressive country. Change is constant." We just need to get on with it and to analyse these new qualifications professionally and with an open mind. There will be the need for continuing dialogue and improvement, and we have been reassured by the new Department for Children, Schools and Families that such input will be welcomed as diplomas evolve.

Clearly, diplomas will not be the answer to all our problems - hence the wider nature of the 14-to-19 reform programme. The overall scheme of reforms provides the opportunity to address concerns in the sector about science education.

Taken to one extreme, if the introduction of diplomas is successful there is a concern that this could potentially lead to even fewer children studying science, particularly in state schools. This must not be allowed to happen. There must be greater clarity over the way 14 to 19-year-olds learn science as the reforms are introduced, but also about how we are to improve our current national performance in science education.

One suggestion would be to add a science or applied science diploma to the current planned range, but there are difficulties with this because of the sector-specific nature of these diplomas. We believe this idea merits further consideration, but only alongside other improvements in 14-to-19 science education.

We need scientists as much as ever; we need new ways to develop them, and we urgently need to increase their number. This is a challenge for the two new government departments, the DCSF and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. The latter has responsibility for science overall and the former for 14-to-19 education. What we need is effective co-ordination across the two new departments to deliver 14-to-19 science education in the UK that befits the 21st century. Otherwise, Disraeli would certainly lament our inability to change.

Michael Arthur is vice-chancellor of Leeds University and Deian Hopkin is vice-chancellor of London South Bank University.

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