Is science teaching facing a problem?

What does the future hold for science teaching? John Leach wonders whether the profession is attractive enough to bring in, and retain, talented teachers.

Teacher guiding student with science experimentSchool science education has never been healthier. The numbers signing up for teacher training are on the increase, OFSTED inspection evidence suggests that the quality of teaching is improving, and the UK's standing in international comparative tests of science achievement, while not matching scores from the Far East, sits comfortably alongside scores from North American and EU competitors.

So why is there still a sense that we have a problem with science education? The Economic and Social Research Council seemed to assume that there was, when it funded a Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education (TISME). The projects involved in the programme provided evidence about the factors that influence girls and boys to keep studying science and maths, the impact of science education reform, and teaching science and maths for learner engagement.

One factor is that few subjects taught in school have such rapidly-changing content as science, particularly in the later years of the secondary curriculum. I took my first degree in the 1980s, as the molecular biology revolution unfolded. Knowledge that was new then is now part of the biology curriculum. The expectations of prospective employers of science graduates are also changing accordingly. Another factor is that in recent years, the curriculum has gained a new focus on How Science Works. This is an area in which the science teaching community has less collective expertise. Finally, there is now a well-developed body of evidence from research about how to teach scientific concepts in such a way that learners understand them. For all these reasons, I think that it is important for the science teaching profession to benefit from the wide range of CPD opportunities presented through the national and regional Science Learning Centres.

But one key area of concern is the supply of talented science teachers, especially in the physical sciences. Although more graduates are now training as physical science teachers, there are still too few of them to fill the vacancies in the maintained sector. This growth in numbers presumably results from policy interventions such as generous bursaries, and from the impact of the recession on other employment opportunities. But to get enough physical science teachers, it will be necessary to maintain or increase the number of appropriately qualified individuals entering the profession, and to reverse the trend for highly-skilled teachers to leave the profession after about five years. History tells us that teacher recruitment, particularly in the STEM subjects, increases during recessions, and decreases when there is an economic upturn. This is because other employers, particularly in the financial sector, recommence their recruitment of graduates with well-honed mathematical and analytical skills as the economy warms up. Initial salaries in the teaching profession are competitive, and the new routes into teaching offer accelerated career structures for high-flyers. But the possibilities for later salary progression still lag behind other fields that compete for the best graduates in physical sciences and mathematics. I do not believe that people enter the teaching profession for the financial rewards, and evidence from the TISME network supports this opinion. However, the prospect of long-term financial security matters when people make career choices, be it to enter the teaching profession or to stay in it.

Changing patterns of teacher training may also influence teacher supply. We have had school-based teacher training since the early 1990s, with trainee teachers spending about two-thirds of their time in school, even though the subject-based part of their training has taken place in higher education. However, funding has been routed through higher education providers of initial teacher training (ITT), which have led the recruitment of trainee teachers as well as having responsibility for struggling and failing trainees. Recent policy changes such as School Direct propose rerouting ITT funding through schools, and with it responsibility for managing the recruitment and support of trainees. Higher education partners can be commissioned by schools to support provision, though there will be no obligation for schools to do so.

It is hard to argue with the proposal that entrants to the teaching profession should have a significant part of their training led by schools. However, the policy of placing responsibility for teacher recruitment across a wide network of schools presents significant risks. Other fields of employment will inevitably compete more strongly for high-quality graduates as the nation moves out of recession. Some geographical regions will find it especially difficult to recruit high-calibre science trainees. At present, those responsible for overseeing teacher supply at a national level can work with a relatively small number of higher education providers to manage places, and indeed the quality of provision. In a highly distributed system, that will be more difficult to achieve. I worry that in the future, it won't be possible to maintain the supply of high-quality science teachers entering the profession, let alone enhance it.

Professor John Leach is Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Development and Society, Sheffield Hallam University.

Share this page