'Students put off the sciences at school'

June 15, 2001

The national curriculum is putting pupils off studying science at university, the new professor of science education at the Institute of Education has said.

Michael Reiss, who is also head of science and technology at the London-based institute, told The THES : "There is no doubt that if one managed to present science to 14 to 16-year-olds as more accessible, more would study it to a higher level." He said the consequences were visible in the skills shortages in fields, such as engineering, that rely on science.

He blamed the curriculum for failing to inspire even those schoolchildren who go on to study science and for being irrelevant to the majority of pupils who do not. He said attempts to broaden the curriculum had backfired - the proportion of students taking physics and chemistry A levels has fallen in the 12 years since the curriculum was introduced.

Universities have complained that the combined science GCSEs are not at a high enough level and lead to a first-year science undergraduate population that knows less than ever. However, science A-level syllabuses had been more successful in terms of fundamental rethinking, Professor Reiss said.

He advocated a model in which pupils decided earlier whether to specialise in science. "Pupils of 14 ought to have real choice about how much science they study and what sort. The curriculum could present a range of both academic and vocational modules, such as rural science, which can be very popular with pupils and employers alike."

Professor Reiss gave his inaugural lecture on Wednesday. He told the audience: "We restrict pupils to mind-blowingly dull questions about the bouncing of squash balls or the dissolving of sugar." Even more damaging, he continued: "We also succeed in persuading most people that they aren't good at science." He said his own work as a research scientist in a university zoology department would not have scored highly in the science national curriculum.

Professor Reiss was previously reader in education and bioethics at Homerton College, Cambridge.

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