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Why science teachers need support

26 Apr, 2012
Louise Jezzard doing the flame test

Sam Clarke (16) Louise Jezzard , Naomi Ford (16), and Sue Knowles of the National Science Learning Centre doing the flame test.

A milestone in the ENTHUSE bursaries has Hilary Leevers reflecting on the importance of helping science teachers to continue to learn themselves.

In 2003, the Wellcome Trust developed a plan to transform science teaching across the UK, which has led to the awarding of the 7000th ENTHUSE bursary to a chemistry teacher last week.

The Trust believes that the future of science depends on the quality of science education today – and that the essence of education is its teaching. Curriculum, assessment, infrastructure, resources, and enrichment are all important, but poor teaching will limit their impact, while excellent teaching can rise above many shortcomings.

That is why teaching is at the heart of our education strategy. For instance, we have recently commissioned research into teacher training for scientists, responded to a select committee inquiry [PDF] in this area, and we are keen to improve primary science teaching.

But our largest commitment has been the initial investment to build the National Science Learning Centre (NSLC) in York. This centre provides teachers and technicians with rich, residential professional development courses that could be a game-changer in science education. 

The NSLC was built during a period in which the number of students choosing to study science was falling, while many secondary schools struggled to find the skilled science teachers that the needed.

Schools face particular challenges in science teaching expertise. For instance, the number of graduates limits the pool from which teachers can be recruited and this pool has been problematically small in the physical sciences. Also, many science teachers are required to teach students across all three sciences up until the age of 16, but they may have specialised in just one science themselves after this age. And of course, our understanding of science is forever evolving and teachers need to keep up-to-date with new developments. In 2003, many students were not being taught by teachers who were confident in their subject knowledge and the best way to teach it.

The NSLC was built as the hub of a National Network of Science Learning Centres, with nine Regional Centres being funded by the Government. They developed targeted, responsive and high-quality professional development courses for teachers and technicians across the UK. However, schools were not used to investing in subject-specific development for their science teachers. The network seemed to struggle to achieve the cultural change needed. Indeed, Trust-funded research in 2006 found that about half of all secondary school science teachers had had no subject knowledge-related professional development in the previous five years.

Thus, in 2008, Project ENTHUSE was founded to cover the costs for participants on eligible courses at the NSLC (including course fees, travel, teaching cover etc.). It was supported by a £10 million investment from the Government, £10 million from the Wellcome Trust and £7 million from business partners: AstraZeneca, AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust, BAE Systems, BP, General Electric, GlaxoSmithKline and Rolls-Royce. A complimentary scheme was funded by the Government for participants on courses at the Regional Science Learning Centres.

Four years later, the 7000th ENTHUSE bursary went to Louise Jezzard, who teaches at Ripley St Thomas School in Lancaster. She did, appropriately, enthuse about the course, finding it to be “incredibly stimulating, increasing my subject knowledge and inspiring me to take a new and different approach when teaching…” She is not alone! The courses are positively received and a recent National Audit Office report found evidence for their knock-on impact on student performance.

The network as a whole is being evaluated this year and we are optimistic that it will continue to raise the quality of science teaching into the future.

To date, the network has worked with over 9 out of 10 state funded secondary schools in England, but only about 1 in 10 primaries; so while many thousands of teachers – and tens of thousands of students – have gained, we hope to see this impact continue to grow over the coming years.

Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning, Wellcome Trust

Find out more about the ENTHUSE bursaries

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