The Royal Society of Chemistry and GlaxoSmithKline have teamed up to give non-specialist chemistry teachers the confidence and skills to teach chemistry to Key Stage 3 and 4 students

A teacher trying one of the experiments

Natalie has a first class degree in biomedical science. She recently started teaching biology in a 11-16 comprehensive school with 'specialist science' status. Next term Natalie will also teach chemistry to Y11. She admits to being 'terrified' by the prospect. She has no maths qualification beyond GCSE, and the thought of teaching chemical calculations covers her in goose bumps. In her favour she does have an A-level in chemistry. There are many competent biology and physics teachers, and some geography and PE teachers, currently teaching chemistry to Key Stage 3 and 4 students with only GCSE chemistry.  

Help is at hand

By the end of this year, however, Natalie and an estimated 400 teachers like her, will have been through one of the 40 Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)-GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Inset courses in England. These four-day courses have been designed to give non-specialist chemistry teachers the help and support they need to teach the subject with confidence and enthusiasm. 

Chemistry for non-specialists was borne out of a belief by the RSC that unless chemistry is taught by teachers with a degree in the chemical sciences - people with a passion for the subject - students at the crucial ages of 11-16 are not likely to be switched on by the subject and will not pursue chemistry post-16, let alone think of chemistry as a potential career option.  

Evidence for the extent of the problem emerged in January 2006 with the publication of a report into who's teaching maths and science in schools by the then Department for Education and Skills (DfES). According to the report only 25 per cent of secondary school science teachers are chemists, while 44 per cent are biologists. 

In retaliation, RSC education teamed up with GSK to develop a course to help the current cohort of non-specialist chemistry teachers deliver quality chemistry to 11-16-year olds. Funded to the tune of £450 k from GSK and £195 k from the RSC over three years, the project has also secured matched funding of £645 k from the DfES Gateways to the Professions scheme. The courses, delivered by RSC-accredited trainers (competent and inspirational chemistry teachers) in collaboration with the regional Science Learning Centres, are made up of a two-day residential component, followed by two separate days one term apart. The cost per teacher is £120, though the actual cost to the project is ca £600 per teacher. All delegates receive a pack of selected resources, including Classic chemistry demonstrations and the CLEAPSS CD-ROM. 

The courses share certain characteristics. There is a heavy practical component during the two-day residential stint during which teachers also get the opportunity to discuss health and safety issues, difficult chemical concepts, and new contemporary contexts for teaching KS3 and KS4 chemistry. The exact activities and the time given to any of these, and what is covered in the one-day follow-up sessions, are determined by the participants and their particular needs. 

By the seaside 

Teachers on the residential summer-term course at Oriel High School in Great Yarmouth seemed to get just what they needed. They came wanting to gain confidence in practical chemistry, they went away with just that.  

A teacher and student enjoying a practical experiment

Practical chemistry is fun

A morning session gave them the opportunity to try a 'carousel of experiments' for themselves. Working at their own pace with no pressure to get the experiments to work perfectly, they were given a few hints and tips en route from course tutors Andrew Thompson (The King's School, Ely) and David Everett (Felsted School, Essex). Flame tests, electrolysis of salt solutions, titration of sodium hydroxide with hydrochloric acid, and the lime water cycle experiment were just four of the nine practicals on offer. Fairly straightforward experiments, but they got the teachers in the right frame of mind to do more adventurous chemical demonstrations - including the thermite reaction - in front of their peers in the afternoon session. 

One of the teachers told Education in Chemistry, 'It was great to do the demos. I was surprised at just how simple but effective they were. I certainly feel that I can do these in front of my Y10 and Y11 classes. They will be a great way to engage the students'. In between the practical sessions, Everett took the opportunity to blow away some of the myths they had about what chemicals are, and, more importantly, are not, banned in schools and colleges. All were surprised that the number of banned chemicals came down to just two - benzene and crude oil. 

Course targets 

Currently the project is falling short of its target - ie to train 900 non-specialist teachers per year for the next three years -by ca 50 per cent. According to Maria Pack, national project manager to the course, 'A major barrier to the uptake of this course is that subject-specific CPD is not regarded as important as the whole school's CPD. However, more funding is being made available through the Chemistry for our future initiative to allow teachers in schools in the Chemistry: the next generation regions in England to take part in this project, and we will be expanding the course into Wales and hopefully Scotland next year, with RSC and GSK funds'.  

So are these courses part of the answer to the bigger question of where are the next generation of future professional chemists going to come from? Thompson comments, 'these courses represent a move in the right direction because they are looking at the establishment as it exists at the moment and trying to fine tune it to give our students better teaching and hopefully inspire them to go on to study chemistry at HE. Long term I think we need to look more proactively at why students aren't taking chemistry in HE and why chemistry graduates aren't choosing to teach chemistry because it is a cyclic problem'.  

For further information on these courses see RSC website.