Benenden headmistress Samantha Price makes the case for taking science seriously
I invite you to consider two recent events. Firstly, science was one of the few areas to have escaped the wider government funding cuts in the Autumn Statement.
Secondly, last month more than 400 young people from 17 schools across Kent took part in a special day devoted to chemistry held here at Benenden.
These two events are far from unrelated; in fact, they are at either end of an issue that is extremely important for our country, and for our schools. We frequently hear that there is a shortage of engineers in the UK, and that this shortage is holding back the economy. As recently as September, one study suggested that engineering roles are the hardest for recruiters to fill, with 49 per cent of respondents agreeing.
Science subjects are the foundation for engineering roles but they have long been suffering from too few young people seeing science as a career option. The situation is starting to improve, but not quickly enough. In introducing this year’s Engineering UK report, the then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Vince Cable said that entrant numbers to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects have increased in the past decade at higher education, AS and A level. However, it is clear there is more to do. Mr Cable said applications for engineering higher education courses have increased by 5.5 per cent in the past year, but with a year-on-year increase from 12 to 19 per cent of firms reporting difficulties in finding suitable graduate recruits, it is clear a skills gap still exists.
Such trends of apathy towards certain subjects can take a long time to address. Science is saddled with an outdated reputation built on previous generations’ experience of their school science days being spent in gloomy labs listening to a technician in a lab coat drone on.
Science today is very different. At Benenden we are fortunate to have wonderful science facilities, but it is not all about the environment you are teaching in: it is down to the teaching itself. Science should be hands-on, it should be a wonderful chance for young people to be free to experiment for themselves. It should be a case of trial and error, because we learn more richly when we are allowed to make errors. It should be fun.
Above all, however, it should be relevant. Students need to know that Science leads somewhere. Speakers at our Chemistry at Work Day were chosen to give that precise message. Many young people would perhaps balk at the idea of becoming a scientist – purely because their stereotypical image of a scientist doesn’t fit with how they see themselves. Yet if you suggested they could pursue their passion and become a perfume maker, a forensics expert, a solar energy specialist, they may think differently.
All children love creating things when they are young and girls are seen as being particularly creative. Science, along with its related subject of Design & Technology, is a wonderful way for them to develop this creativity. Schools should harness this natural creativity and curiosity and encourage it. If we are stifling it then we are not teaching science properly, and we will not be able to complain if there is still a shortage of engineers in another generation’s time and the science budget starts to be cut.