Policy does not add up

September 6, 2002

What maths/science 'consumers', aka school pupils, need are the basic tools, says Tony Gardiner.

Given that maths and science in English schools are patently failing to deliver at age 18, there is something profoundly unnerving about the scientific and educational naivety of the select committee report Science Education from 14 to 19 and the government's responses to the Roberts review SET for Success.

The latter is a careful analysis of the supply of competent manpower in maths, science and engineering. And while the Treasury response contains a number of helpful financial commitments, the naive emphasis in its summary of the educational issues - "review the maths and science curricula to ensure that they appeal to pupils" - is disturbing.

This impression of a "consumer-led", "innovation-driven" strategy was reinforced by a Department for Education and Skills pre-briefing two days earlier, where an official said that abstract mathematics such as algebra, geometry and trigonometry bored many pupils and turned them off the subject. What we were not told was how anyone can learn, or appreciate mathematics or science without such tools.

The select committee report is also naively consumer driven. It was meant to address the issues surrounding science teaching - in particular the fact that the advent of compulsory science in primary schools and "balanced science" in secondary schools has failed to deliver the promised outcomes.

The situation is not good. Public attitudes to science are more negative now than in the 1980s. Scientifically trained teachers are an endangered species. The number of students taking A-level maths and science continues to decline. Many university science and engineering departments are facing massive cuts or closure. And there are clear shortages of scientifically competent adults in the workforce.

Yet instead of identifying the flaws in the strategy of the past 15 years, the report advocates "more of the same" - more woolly emphasis on "what science is about", more "excitement", more choice, more debate of controversial issues - and less detailed basic science of the kind that might one day inform citizens' wider concerns. One is reminded of Swift's "grand Academy of Lagado" where "a most ingenious architect had contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downwards to the foundation".

Science and mathematics underpin our society. But the spirit of science does not mesh easily with the values that pervade a modern consumer democracy. Science's success stems from its respect for "harsh reality" as the ultimate authority (displacing political might, or individual preference), and its unique method of interrogating that authority through observation, inference, prediction and experiment. The approach is intrinsically quantitative: the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. Politically attractive proposals seeking to base science teaching on excitement, choice, controversy and novelty rather than on an appreciation of the true spirit of science are rooted in a contradiction, and are doomed to backfire.

Instead of arguing for a coherent science curriculum constructed around key "unifying principles", the report complains that courses are "overloaded with factual content", insists that they be further neutered, and takes refuge in that irresponsible Thatcherite cliche: "a wider range of options". Instead of giving pupils the satisfaction of mastering the basics of specific sciences, the report advocates that "all students be taught the skills of scientific literacy" through "a vibrant science curriculum". Instead of exploiting pupils' enhanced mastery of elementary mathematics to "re-mathematise" school science, the select committee complains that "students' perceptions of the mathematical requirements of A-level sciences puts (them) off choosing to study these subjects".

The numeracy and literacy strategies have shown how nitty-gritty details, such as learning tables and phonetic approaches to reading, are more effective than touchy-feely methods, such as discovery learning, in ensuring pupils master basic skills and in providing material for their imagination to engage with. The select committee might have done better had it explored the possible benefits of a similar strategy in science.

Tony Gardiner is reader in mathematics and mathematics education at the University of Birmingham.

An online debate on science and maths teaching will be hosted by Tony Gardiner at www.thes.co.uk/commonroom

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