Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Quandary - 20 May 2010

My son has done no practical science at secondary school and is now completely turned off.

Hillary's Advice

How wicked that a boy who loved science at primary school has had his interest so destroyed that he now wonít contemplate taking A level sciences. Not only is it a crime to snuff out childrenís curiosity and enthusiasm like this, but it also means that a whole swathe of fascinating careers will be shut down to him -- probably for ever.

You ask if his experience is normal. Yes it is. According to a recent survey run by the network of Science Learning Centres, more than 9 out of 10 science teachers say they face obstacles trying to organise practical science sessions. The biggest one is the pressure to get through the national curriculum. Then there are the demands of testing and marking, issues of bad behaviour and a lack of suitable equipment. Thereís also the fact that many science teachers are not specialists in their field. If physics is not your first subject, you arenít going to feel confident about running physics experiments. Interestingly, however, health and safety rules donít seem to be an issue.

Secondary school pupils used to routinely grow mould, create waves and dissect small animals as part of their science learning. They might have burned off their eyebrows over a Bunsen burner and complained noisily about the pong of formaldehyde, but at least they were learning science as an explorative, hands-on subject.

Various groups and projects are trying to reintroduce exciting science to schools by training science teachers in practical methods, pooling local resources, and setting up specialist centres such as the handful of Physics Factories around the country, and the Reach Out Lab recently established by Imperial College, London. However it is not nearly enough to turn the tide on science and there seems a distressing lack of urgency in addressing these problems.

How can you rekindle your sonís interest? I fear it will be hard, but one way might be try and arrange some work experience visits to hospitals, engineering plants and research laboratories so he can see what science looks like outside the dreary confines of school.