Endpoint: Keith Taber has the last word

The recent UK Government budget stated: 'From 2008, every pupil achieving level 6 in KS3 science will be entitled to study separate physics, chemistry and biology GCSEs'.1 This apparently modest pledge would represent a significant shift in the way schools organise science teaching, and for how the country prepares graduates to enter the teaching profession.   

What's in a name?

Science teacher

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Since the introduction of the English National Curriculum (NC) 17 years ago, 'chemistry' has not been an official school subject. This has meant that graduates do not prepare to become 'chemistry teachers' but instead opt for the official school subject 'science'. Although many trainee science teachers do have a recognised specialism, all new science teachers are required to show that they can teach all the sciences, at least at KS3, if they are to be awarded Qualified Teacher Status.   

Indeed, since 'science' became a core school subject for all 5-16-year olds, there has been a deliberate avoidance in the curriculum materials of the labels 'biology', 'chemistry' and 'physics'.2 Instead 'life processes and living things', 'materials and their properties' and 'physical processes' are used. Apart from some geology and astronomy, the topics under the headings map onto the three traditional science disciplines. However, the alternative labels reinforce the notion that these are not curriculum subjects, but just components of a single school subject - 'science'.    

The new science curriculum being introduced this year for 14-16-year olds contains reorganised (reduced) content, with the earth and space science topics separated out from the traditional material.3 However, it still avoids mentioning chemistry and the other sciences. Instead we find 'organisms and health', 'chemical and material behaviour', 'energy, electricity and radiations', and 'environment, Earth and universe'.   

Teacher training

Entrants to teacher training are expected to have degrees where at least half of their undergraduate study is relevant to the school curriculum. Very few of them have degrees in 'science' per se. They usually have degrees in a particular science discipline, or a branch of engineering, or sometimes in psychology or geography (if they can demonstrate they took options relevant to the school science curriculum). Yet these entrants are expected, during their training, to develop enough understanding and background to teach any topic in the school science curriculum.   

While many trainee teachers are both eager and have the potential to do so, it does not follow that it is realistic to expect them to develop sufficient expertise during a demanding one-year training course. And what about the biologists who do not want to teach physical sciences? And the physicists who were never very interested in biology, but want to teach physics and maths in school? Presently the system has no place for these people to contribute.    

This training policy has led to some science teaching being uninspiring and confusing to students because the committed teacher is struggling to teach unfamiliar topics. Meanwhile, the number of students choosing physical sciences at A-level and beyond is insufficient for the country's needs. And well-established universities have been closing chemistry and physics departments. Making 'science' the school subject and pretending that science graduates can always teach across the sciences has been an expensive ideology.    

So we need to accept that schools need biology, chemistry and physics teachers - not instead of, but as well as, science teachers. We should continue to encourage all science teachers to be knowledgeable about a broad spread of science - but let those who want to teach the 14-19 age group be trained as biology, chemistry or physics teachers. The sciences have much in common, but also comprise a broad church of disciplines. Science education needs to reflect this. We need a range of science teachers, with a variety of disciplinary backgrounds.   

The Government now finally accepts that for some school students, learning science as a set of related but distinct disciplines is the best approach. The next step is to make sure we have a flexible teacher training regime to provide both the science generalist, and the subject specialists that the reinstated school subjects will require. In many schools biology, chemistry and physics never went away. Now they will be available to more 14-16-year olds who will benefit from studying them, and who hopefully will go on to study them post-16.   

Keith Taber is senior lecturer in science education at Cambridge University, Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 2PQ.