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Brian Cox cool, science teachers cooler

31 May, 2013
Wellcome Trust Monitor Infographic: Education

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Science, for so long the uncool subject as school, has had something of a renaissance of late and the decline in the number of pupils taking maths and science has turned around. And all this – if you believe the newspapers – is because one man, Professor Brian Cox, musician, chat-show regular and particle physicist, has made science sexy.

Science lessons are actually far more popular than most of us think. According to the Wellcome Trust Monitor over four out of five 14 to 18 year-olds find their science lessons interesting – in fact, most think they are more interesting than English, with its Shakespearean tragedies and feral children. This finding is consistent with the first survey in 2009 – back then, it came as such as surprise that our advisory panel thought we’d made a mistake (we checked and a follow-up study confirmed we were right).

This turnaround in interest in science is without doubt a good thing. We need a science-skilled workforce to help the UK’s long term economic competitiveness and we need a scientifically literate population to help make sense of the myriad health scares (as the recent measles outbreak in Swansea has shown). But is it really down to one man?

There will be many a science teacher who feels somewhat disgruntled to see Professor Cox getting all the credit for making science ‘cool’, as this oversimplification of the story ignores the tremendous work the education community has been doing. And the Monitor backs this up: when we asked young people what encouraged them to learn science, the most common answer was their teacher – nearly six in ten said a good teacher inspired them; worrying, though, that over four in ten said a bad teacher turned them off science.

There has been much work done to improve science education and to encourage science graduates to consider a career in teaching. Just over half of all physics teachers hold a physics degree (a good start, but we must do better) and four in five biology teachers have a relevant degree.

Just as important is ensuring that once in position, our teachers are able to grow and develop. One of the wonderful things about a career in science is that the subject is ever-changing. To make science teaching an attractive career, we must ensure that our teachers have the opportunity to embrace and use new knowledge, just as scientists do. Teachers must be able to learn and implement the latest development in pedagogy, but they must also be able to keep abreast of cutting-edge science and convey the excitement of it to their pupils. Newton’s law of inertia is important, but so too is the understanding that science itself never stands still.

The National Science Learning Centre at the University of York is leading the way for teachers’ continued professional development, and since its doors opened in 2005 has had well over 10,000 teachers and technicians on its courses, crucially offering bursaries to schools to help cover course costs, including travel and teaching cover. These bursaries, funded by the Government, industry and the Wellcome Trust, show the importance we all place upon excellent teachers and their ability to inspire their pupils to study science and go on to work in related careers. The Monitor, indeed, showed that teachers were the second main source of careers advice for pupils (behind their parents).

However, there is evidence that pupils form their opinions and make their decisions about science early, in fact often by the end of primary school. Unfortunately, there remains a woeful number of primary school teachers with science qualifications – less than one in thirty – and little focus amongst head teachers and senior leadership teams on the status and importance of science in primary schools. Too many schools focus on targets in English and maths, with science as a poor relation despite the fact that it is also a core subject. If on top of that, we have a primary workforce that has rarely studied science beyond GCSE, then who will champion science and convey not just confidence, but pleasure in it?

Wonderful as it is to have physicists, biologists and chemists like Brian Cox on TV to inspire our next generation of scientists, what we really need are physicists, biologists and chemists like Brian Cox to join our secondary and primary teaching workforce. Britain is excellent at science in all fields. Now let’s make sure it is excellent at science teaching at all levels.

Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement, Wellcome Trust

Wellcome Trust Monitor:
You might also find the resources available on the Science Learning Centres website useful.

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