Science in Wales needs to move up a gear


05 May 2011

All the recent analysis on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) provision in Wales points to one conclusion - that science in the country needs to step up a gear.

The Royal Society of Chemistry is surprised to find few references to science in any political party's election manifesto, considering the National Assembly for Wales's own report published in January found many STEM shortcomings from primary school to university through to teaching.

Recent findings by Estyn, the education and training inspectorate for Wales, revealed "significantly lower" standards in science and maths than other subjects. Their evidence also referred to research by the Royal Society that showed the proportion of students in Wales taking biology, chemistry, physics and maths at A-Level was significantly below that of the rest of the UK. The 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results backed this up with Wales' performance in science below the rest of the UK, which was worryingly lower than their 2006 performance.

Analysis has also showed that science in primary schools may be experiencing a decline and it is pivotal that an assessment is made to look at improvement in this area. If a child is not interested in science by their teens, they are not going to change their opinion. Encouraging inquisitive young minds from primary school should therefore be made a top priority. To aid this process, the RSC would like to see an annual increase in the number of highly-qualified chemistry teachers. This should be complemented by qualified career advice to pre-14-year-olds, highlighting what the variety of doors are that can be opened by studying chemistry and other STEM subjects.

A further concern is the increasing funding gap per student in Higher Education between England and Wales. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales shows that in 2007-08 government funding per student was 862 less than in England. It is commendable that most political parties in Wales are committed to freezing tuition fees for Welsh students studying in Wales or England, yet there is a worry that this could lead to an increasing funding shortfall.

The current Welsh Assembly leadership has said that the funding to sustain this model will be met by the extra income from English students attending Welsh universities from the year 2012-13. However, assembly government funds going to English and other UK universities outside Wales is set to rise from nothing the next academic year to more than 50m a year by 2015.

The RSC, which welcomed the appointment, exactly one year ago, of Wales' first ever chief scientific adviser, looks forward to Professor John Harries' imminent initial recommendations on the new science policy for Wales which he and his advisory council are writing. The society also looks forward to participating in the public consultation process on the policy over the summer. However, none of the parties have committed to appointing a dedicated science minister. This position should be given serious consideration in light not only of the enterprise and learning committee's report into STEM subjects, but also of the importance to almost all areas of policy and the economy that robust scientific advice provides. With the expected establishment of new scrutiny committees following the elections, it would be encouraging to see a committee, perhaps based on the outgoing enterprise and learning committee, which contained the word 'science', 'innovation' or 'technology' in its title.

Opinions on whether sciences at GCSE should be taught separately or combined (double science) have been fairly robust. The RSC believes that different formats suit different pupils and there is no "one size fits all" approach.

In the view of Lesley Griffiths, deputy minister for science, innovation and skills, "a strong research base and a pool of workers with good science, technology, engineering and maths are essential for an innovative, modern economy". In reality, Wales is a long-way off seeing this vision coming to fruition. Therefore, the RSC believes that plenty of further collaboration in Wales is needed to pull the nation out of the science slow-lane and establish a prosperous and knowledge-based economy for the future. Success will not happen overnight.

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