Sir John Holman outlines priorities for chemistry education that should be high on the Department for Education’s agenda
As the dust settles after the election, how are things looking for chemistry education in England? And what should we, the Royal Society of Chemistry, be saying to the secretary of state for education, Justine Greening?
Grammar schools are off the agenda, and that’s cleared away a distraction that was unwelcome for many teachers. We have yet to see whether the positive messages about funding turn into anything material, but what else should be high on Justine Greening’s agenda?
I’m proud to be the first president in the RSC’s 175-year history to come from a school-teaching background. As a former chemistry teacher and headteacher, I’m especially interested in the unique ways that scientific professional bodies like the RSC can support science teaching in schools.
The RSC has more than 54,000 members and a knowledge base that spans the globe. We are the UK’s professional body for chemical scientists and we accredit all UK undergraduate chemistry courses. We are the largest non-governmental supporter of chemistry education in the UK and we spend £3–4m each year on our programmes to support school chemistry. We know about chemistry teaching, and we work closely with our sister bodies, the Royal Society of Biology and the Institute of Physics, to support science education at all ages. We are in a strong position to influence national education policy, and there are three priority areas I think should be high on the Department for Education’s agenda.
We can’t stand still – chemistry education is too important for that
We know teachers are by far the most important factor in chemistry education. Teachers with strong subject knowledge are key to both progression and attainment – and in chemistry, progression to further study is at least as important as getting good grades. The RSC is already working with the DfE to bring chemists into the teaching profession through the scholarship scheme. However, the problem of specialist teacher shortages needs tackling by addressing both recruitment and retention. We are very concerned that STEM teachers have significantly lower retention rates than the average.
Of course, pay and working conditions have a lot to do with it. The cap on teachers’ pay needs to come off and teachers’ workload needs to be addressed. But in the shorter term, we know that subject-specific professional development helps retain chemistry specialists in teaching, as well as boosting their subject knowledge and teaching skills. It is clear there is much more to be done to understand the cultural influences on teacher retention and why some teachers are not accessing the professional development opportunities that are already available. The RSC is working with other stakeholders in science education to understand these factors and to see how professional development can be better embedded in the UK education system, as it is in other successful countries like Finland and Singapore.
Curriculum and assessment
The new, demanding knowledge-rich curriculum for England is now established at both GCSE and A-level. Some teachers are happier with it than others, though I hear few calls from teachers for yet another change. But I like the idea, outlined in the Conservative election manifesto, of enhancing the knowledge-rich curriculum through partnerships with leading cultural and scientific institutions. Professional bodies are already offering a huge amount in this area. Learn Chemistry, the home of the RSC’s support for chemistry learning, is a rich resource. Over 3700 schools are already members of the Learn Chemistry Partnership, giving them extra free support through the RSC’s regional network of educational coordinators. All schools can join for free.
Like our sister bodies in biology and physics, we have established curriculum committees to collect the views of our expert chemistry community on the future development of the subject at GCSE and A-level. We’re not suggesting that any reform is needed yet – far from it – but the time will come, and we want to be in a strong position to contribute our subject expertise in any future reforms, so they can be achieved with minimum disruption to schools.
Technical and vocational pathways
There are many opportunities for employment as technicians in the chemical sciences, yet too few young people have access to the necessary high quality training. The new Post-16 Skills Plan for England sets out a clearer, simpler framework for technical qualifications. We will work with the DfE to define the science core content, in collaboration with our sister societies, and offer access to our network of both providers and employers. The RSC can share extensive experience of the development of qualifications and accreditation, including apprenticeship programmes.
The Queen’s speech in June showed that the government’s main preoccupation will be, understandably, with Brexit, leaving limited time and energy for domestic policies like education. But we can’t stand still – chemistry education is too important for that. The RSC will continue to support the UK’s strong position in science and innovation by supporting education in all four UK nations. We’ve been around for 175 years, committed to the future of the chemical sciences, and we will stick to that mission in the long term, with and without government.