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Science and the National Curriculum

Simon Jenkins

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In David Hare's National Theatre play Galileo the actor Simon Russell Beale rants and shouts for three hours at an exasperated pope about the importance of science. I do not normally cheer the papacy, but by the end of the play I was on its side. The pope had been happy to debate his ideas, but the man simply would not shut up.

Last week a new GCSE syllabus, titled Twenty First Century Science, came into use in a third of schools and was greeted with a similar rant from self-serving scientists. It moves away from test tubes and bunsen burners, towards an understanding of such topics as global warming, GM foods, vaccination, pollution, health and diet. It starts with the science of everyday life and delves into the technicalities only for pupils who are interested. It is "right way round" education.

The backwoods promptly howled that this was subjective, not objective science. It would "leave students poorly equipped to study science at A-level and university", apparently the be-all and end-all of education. Baroness Warnock protested that the new syllabus encouraged debate and "is thus more suitable for the pub than the classroom". Sir Richard Sykes, head of Imperial College London, played the old trump that it would "disadvantage state-school children" in getting into his university. "Britain needs more scientists," they all chanted. What they really mean is that their departments need more applicants or they will lose government grants.

At times my heart swells with pride at Britain's young. For nearly a quarter of a century they have had to confront this academic vested interest boring them to tears by drilling them, in effect, as press-ganged university lab assistants. They have shrugged, packed their satchels and walked away. Now at last - with the agreement of the Royal Society and the Association for Science Education no less - the new syllabus offers them science they might one day use.

The compulsory-science lobby began in the early 1980s by asserting its centrality in the national economy and declaring "a crisis" in maths and science teaching. There was no evidence for this, but the Thatcher government took it hook, line and sinker. (Margaret Thatcher had abandoned science for law.) Kenneth Baker's 1988 national curriculum, with its 300 pages of regulations and 400 inspectors, imposed science on schools "to meet the manpower needs of the economy". Virtually half the school day was to be devoted to maths, science and technology.

Baker's concession to this lobby relegated history and geography to optional status and ignored such "life skills" as economics, law, health, civics and the environment. It was academic log-rolling disguised as economic necessity, like the Roman Catholic church struggling to keep itself supplied with potential acolytes. At the time, Russia was producing more qualified scientists than the rest of Europe put together, and little good came of it. What Russia needed was economists, businessmen, lawyers and anyone prepared to question received doctrine. Now Britain too fell back on the economic chimera that salvation lay in mass science.

The curriculum has been a quarter century of total failure. Even after five years the number of pupils taking science GCSEs had fallen by 10%, and the number taking in physics, chemistry and biology were down by 16%, 14% and 10% respectively. Physics and maths A-levels fared no better, also down by 10%. University students were voting against science with their feet, and the insults heaped on them were extraordinary. Ministers and the media jeered at them for taking soft options, epitomised by business and media studies. Universities were penalised for teaching what students wanted, with a cut in arts grants per capita and an increase in science ones. Desperate academics opened their doors to lower-grade applicants for science courses, diluting quality and demoralising their departments. Nobody other than students noticed the shift in the jobs market towards law, accountancy, marketing, computing, management and media skills. Baker's curriculum was manpower planning gone haywire.

The science campaign left an entire generation of British pupils with an education they neither enjoyed nor could use. Each year the numbers doing non-compulsory science in schools declined. In the past decade alone university science departments have shrunk by between a third and a half. Only where market demand is clear - as in medicine - are departments oversubscribed and doctors in surplus. The most vocational university in Britain, the 25,000-strong University of Central England in Birmingham, now teaches no maths or science at all. Even old-fashioned universities are closing chemistry and physics departments (to howls from fundamentalists). The game is up.

The shrewdest essay on British education is still Lytton Strachey's debunking of the Victorian reformer Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby. Strachey pointed out that Arnold's invention of the modern public school was a sales pitch to the new middle classes on the moral virtues of boarding. Children would be spiritually and socially secure in his school - and regularly thrashed. On the curriculum Arnold was reactionary. Having challenged the old regime institutionally, he told his tutors and ushers to teach traditional subjects.

As a result, said Strachey, "the monastic and literary conceptions of education, which had their roots in the middle ages, he adopted almost without hesitation ... devoted to the teaching of Greek and Latin grammar". While 19th-century Germany, France and Russia were racing into technology, Britain stuck with the classical "greats". Arnold's curriculum dominated British education until well after the second world war.

The 1988 national curriculum has been as stuck-in-the-mud as was Arnold's. Its archaic motto could be "What was good enough for me ... " Maths and science have merely replaced Latin and Greek as the dogma of the academic establishment, for whom schools are no more than tributary outposts. My own science O-level included trigonometry, advanced algebra and differential calculus, and related them to physics, engineering, statics and dynamics. I can not remember any of it, nor have I found the slightest use for it. I imagine more people use Latin than trigonometry. Maths teachers have joined classicists in that last refuge of educational sophistry, that the very uselessness of subject is good "mind training".

Today anyone who claimed that Britain "needs" more accountants, lawyers and marketing experts, because they are most in demand and highly paid, would be laughed at. To decry science teaching is like telling a church it does too much religion. Yet even the government is hypocritical. The people Gordon Brown and his colleagues recruit extravagantly each day are not scientists but management consultants, bankers, computer salesmen and business administrators. Young people are not dumb. They can read job advertisements and the skills required.

If I were a scientist or mathematician I would plead for my subject to be optional after primary school. I would crave it as a specialism for the highly motivated, like classics or medicine. I would want no army of sullen recruits telling the world that my subject was "boring". Science should claw back its 19th-century glamour. The new syllabus does that, accepting that mass science has shot its bolt. It returns this challenging subject to what, for the majority, should be its proper place, the land of curiosity and wonder.


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Letters in today's Guardian about Simon Jenkins' article:

So Simon Jenkins found no use for his differential calculus (Britain has at last escaped the illusion that salvation lies in mass science, October 13). Fine. As a scientist I have found little use since the age of 16 for the Hamlet soliloquies that I was forced to learn for O-level, yet I do not react by campaigning for an end to the teaching of English literature to 16-year-olds. The culture of this country, as a home for enquiring minds and a relatively high level of free thinking, has its roots in all academic disciplines, including the science and engineering that took off in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The fact that, for example, some people drink organic wine because it does not contain 20 parts per million of a pesticide residue but still contains 13% of a highly toxic chemical (ie ethanol) shows what happens when people flock away from a teaching which at least gives them the ability to weigh up levels of risk. In a spin- and marketing-obsessed age facts are a casualty and we are already seeing the effects of armchair chemistry, in which opinions on various subjects are shaped by an hour on Google - with each hit, regardless of quality, given equal weight, rather than laboratory experimentation. With no basic science education this will continue unabated and eventually the sun will orbit the earth because the majority of bloggers think that is the truth.

Dr Chris Howick


Simon Jenkins has perhaps too much of a good point. We do need a clearer understanding of what science and mathematics everyone should be aware of - but there is danger in pretending that everyone needs to be a semi-professional scientist. But wonder and curiosity aren't the only aspects of science that should be common currency. Everyone should be aware, for example, of the detailed case for evolution, and why it is far and away the best theory around for the emergence and development of life. Everyone should be aware of the evidence regarding the claim that human activity is influencing global climate change.

But these matters are part of a wider concern: the nature of risk and how we evaluate scientific arguments in the public domain. The issues embrace so many matters of genuine public concern: mobile telephone masts, vaccines, nuclear power, safety in transport. It is a serious criticism of the programme of mass science education that it has failed to provide citizens with an adequate basis for evaluating risk, and for challenging the arguments advanced by experts of all kinds, from politicians upwards.

These matters require a serious understanding of science, way beyond wonder and curiosity but short of professional qualifications in science and engineering. We cannot simply leave these matters to experts and then expect to vote intelligently on them.

Rev Dr John Ogden

Reading, Berkshire

Simon Jenkins's attack on traditional science education seems of a piece with the current fashion to scorn the "reality-based community". He seems to conflate scientific expertise and scientific literacy, pursuing the correct argument (that our children cannot all be experts) to the incorrect conclusion: that it is acceptable for them to be scientifically quite ignorant. He fails to understand the value of scientific education, and is wrong to suggest it should be restricted to the "interested few". On the contrary, the health of our society depends upon maintaining a scientifically literate many. This comes only with "bottom up" education, which mimics, as it must, the scientific method and philosophical discipline of establishing truth from first principles and building upon a foundation of logic, observed evidence, testable hypotheses and knowledge. Without this, the "top down" approach gives merely an illusion of understanding - and might as well be used to teach debating points to politicians.

Surely the sterling value of education in a democracy is to teach the skills and habits of independent critical thinking, and where better to find it than in good, effective science education?

M Andrla

Crawley, West Sussex

If Simon Jenkins cannot distinguish between the importance of what Galileo said - "It is true because I can prove it" - and what Pope Urban VIII said - "It is true because I say it is" - then his science education was indeed wasted. The importance of science education is not to impart facts but to teach scientific method. Such a method of reasoning is not only applicable to science but proof based on evidence is useful to many other disciplines too.

Science may be harder to understand than media studies but it must be taught at a reasonable standard to all. Without the ability to evaluate information, which is the main value of science education, children and adults can be manipulated into believing anything without real evidence.

Brian P Block


After reading Simon Jenkins I asked myself whether this is the start of a new dark age. He states that "My own science O-level included trigonometry, advanced algebra and differential calculus, and related them to physics, engineering, statics and dynamics. I cannot remember any of it, nor have I found the slightest use for it." I found this sad and insulting. Any science graduate who stated that they had studied poetry or English history and could remember none of it would be classed (rightly) as a philistine.

Of course Jenkins is correct - what we need are economists, businessmen and lawyers; they're just the sort that can sort out the effects of climate change. In fact, if we hadn't had scientists we wouldn't even need to address the issue and we could get on with the serious business of importing manufactured hi-tech goods for our armies of media people, accountants and celebrities.

Rod White

Uley, Gloucestershire

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