A new government and a new school year, the RSC's Director of Science and Education takes stock and explains what can you expect from the RSC in the future

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Best foot forward...

Society faces demanding challenges, both economically and in terms of addressing major issues associated with health, energy supply, food supply, water quality and supply, and the stewardship of scarce natural resources. Those of us connected with the chemical sciences are in a unique position to address these challenges. A Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) report to be published later in the year shows that those industries that are underpinned by chemistry research contribute approximately 20 per cent of the UK's GDP, some £250 billion. Additionally, chemistry is a creative subject, manufacturing new materials that are tailored to meet a particular application, whether that's as a new medicine or as a more efficient means of capturing and storing energy. 

However, for chemistry to continue to invent, innovate, and contribute to the economic and material well-being of society, we need to continue to excite and attract a new generation of students to the chemical sciences. That's only going to happen if young people are guided by talented, knowledgeable and enthusiastic teachers, so it's vital that we support and encourage those entering the profession and also those already in the profession including those for whom chemistry is not their specialist subject.

Supporting teachers 

Since January 2007, the RSC has been delivering a GlaxoSmithKline-funded programme designed to provide teachers - especially those with biology or physics backgrounds - with the confidence, flair and enthusiasm to teach chemistry at Key Stage 3 or Key Stage 4. These four-day courses, delivered by experienced chemistry teachers trained by the RSC, comprise a two-day residential and two one-day follow-up events at approximately termly intervals. The courses have become popular and are well respected, so much so that they will form the basis of a new course to be launched in 2011. This new course will be directed at specialist chemistry teachers and designed to refresh practical skills. Elements of both courses will be developed to form part of the RSC's new, predominantly online, set of CPD resources. 

These resources will complement the RSC provision already in place to support teachers in their delivery of the subject, such as The Quantum Casino. Launched in early 2010, the interactive website provides new ways to teach thermodynamics, with questions, video clips and simulations available for use within lessons or the school's virtual learning environment. More recently, the RSC, in partnership with the Training Development Agency and the Association for Science Education, launched the LabSkills practical chemistry software. Available to UK state secondary schools, this programme improves confidence in undertaking practical activities at Key Stage 5 by allowing teachers or students to better prepare before doing them 'for real'. 

The chemical sciences are a 'hands on' discipline, one that investigates and explores the world largely through experiment and practical activity. A recent RSC press release stated ". to nurture the scientists of the future, then it is essential that school students experience the excitement of practical science, and that can only be achieved by providing properly furbished laboratory environments." Our policy continues to push for higher laboratory standards, but this will take time. So, for today's students, and alongside LabSkills, we provide a popular bank of microscale experiments. The experiments are designed for 5-19 year olds and most of the experiments are compatible with small scale plastic apparatus. The Practical Chemistry website provides full guidance on the materials and equipment required, allowing teachers to prepare activities to suit their facilities. For older pupils, and as part of the current HE-STEM programme, we have re-started, and expanded the geographical scope of Spectroscopy in a Suitcase. 

By early 2011, the RSC will have nine regional coordinators on hand across the UK to support and promote our educational activities. The coordinators will be able to help chemistry teachers, including those in training, to establish networks and contacts, between schools, higher education institutions and local business and industry. Alongside promoting RSC support materials, the coordinators will also promote local ChemNet and Chemistry @ Work events. 

Education policy 

A second aspect to the RSC's efforts to attract a new generation to chemistry is our education policy work that continues to campaign for an education system that is fit for purpose. The RSC has recognised that there is a need for a comprehensive review of the knowledge and skills required at each stage of chemical sciences education and is in the process of developing a global framework for chemistry education. Chemistry for Tomorrow's World - A roadmap for the chemical sciences which identifies future priorities for the chemical sciences that the RSC considers will have a major influence on society, will have significant impact for the context of this framework.

Chemistry education in schools and colleges has two distinct roles. First, for those who do not continue with science post-16, chemistry education should serve as a preparation for becoming a scientifically literate citizen. We need to equip these students with the skills and understanding applicable to their everyday lives. For those continuing their study of the subject, their education must provide the knowledge and skills required to progress to further study in the chemical sciences. 

So, a major activity for the RSC in the first part of 2010 has been our work commenting on the draft specifications and assessment materials for the 2011 GCSEs that the awarding organisations submitted to Ofsted. At the time of writing none of these has received approval. 

Indeed, with the advent of a new government, and announcements that state schools will be able to teach iGCSEs, the role and structure of the national curriculum looks set to change, though the government has yet to outline any official plans. At A-level the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has announced that modular A-levels could be phased out in favour of a return to traditional exams at the end of two-year courses. Gove has emphasised that, 'we need to ensure that the knowledge expected of A-level students is such that they can hit the ground running (at university) and they don't need, as some have suggested, four-year courses or catch-up tuition,' and has hinted that higher education institutes would have a greater role in the development of the new qualifications.

With the abolition of QCDA there is a question over who will have responsibility for overseeing the curriculum. It seems hopeful that the science community has an opportunity to play a greater role in the redefining of the science curriculum and the redevelopment of qualifications. The RSC welcomes this possibility and will continue to work for the development of a curriculum that is able to engage students at all levels and which fits them for the modern world.