Urgent action required to secure future of UK science

The Royal Society has called for drastic measures, including a fundamental reform of the A-level system, to break the “self-perpetuating cycle” which has resulted in the UK producing too few science graduates for the needs of both higher education and industry.

February 15, 2011

The society’s fourth “state of the nation” report, Preparing for the transfer from school and college science and mathematics education to UK STEM higher education, argues that both the quantity and quality of 16- to 19-year-olds studying science and maths needs to improve, along with the systems of information, advice and guidance to facilitate a “smooth transfer” into science, technology, engineering and maths courses at university.

This is crucial not least to generate the supply of science teachers to educate and enthuse the next generation, says the report published today.

A particular worry highlighted is the finding that in 2009, 17 per cent of upper secondary institutions in England, 13 per cent in Wales and 43 per cent in Northern Ireland did not enter a single candidate for A-level physics.

The report also points to the potential for “STEM deserts” in higher education, which it says already exist in the physical sciences.

“Indeed, an A-Level student who lives in Norwich and wants to study physics at university will have to travel to London to do so, or a similar distance,” it notes.

In response to this crisis, the Royal Society’s report calls for the Department for Education to look into the creation of a new Baccalaureate-style A-Level “to enable students to study a wider range and increased number of subjects than is usually the case now”.

It argues that there is a need for greater collaboration between neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and educational researchers to develop a “shared and more complete understanding of the factors underlying subject preferences among girls and boys”.

Sir Paul Nurse, the society’s president, added that it was also crucial that science and maths teachers are provided with subject-specific continuing professional training to ensure that the curriculum they teach is “rigorous, engaging and inspiring”.


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