Binda Patel looks at what a lack of specialist science teachers could mean for the growing UK STEM industries. 

Science lessons on a Friday afternoon were always challenging, more so for my teacher than for me! I often wondered what inspired an Oxford graduate with a first-class degree to become a teacher. He could have been anything he wanted – a scientist, a banker or an analyst – but he chose to teach. I actually bumped into him a few months ago and I couldn’t quite believe it when he told me he was still teaching at my school! I asked if he’d ever thought to do something else and he replied:

“I could have stopped teaching years ago but I chose stay. It’s a tough job with big challenges, but if I can convince a handful of students to take up science at university, we’ll have a few more scientists in the world. Maybe one will even come back and replace me when I get too old for this!”

But it seems my old science teacher is the exception rather than the rule. Our latest report highlights a serious lack of science graduates entering teaching. This is troubling given the need for skilled graduates in the growing UK science and technology industries. The research brief warns of a science shortfall caused by low numbers of biology, chemistry and physics graduates entering teacher training. The fear is that the shortfall is having a significant impact on the uptake of science at A Levels. This is particularly stark for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with only 13% of these less well-off students taking triple science at A Level compared to 30% of other students.

There are many challenges: regional differences; a shortage of specialist teachers; and the quality of teachers, to name just a few. We must recognise the urgency of addressing these challenges and impress upon government the need to move fast. If not, we’ll find ourselves with an increasing number of students who will leave school without the skills they need to succeed in a science-driven labour market.

So how do we inspire our brightest science graduates to enter the teaching profession? How do we ensure we are encouraging students to pursue science to A Level and beyond? Today’s report makes three key recommendations:

  • Incentives to address science teaching shortages should be targeted at schools in less advantaged areas.
  • In schools with shortages of physics teachers or none at all, local authorities or Multi Academy Trusts should encourage teachers from other schools to offer Continuing Professional Development courses.
  • Further efforts need to be made to ensure that state school teachers have qualifications in the subjects they are teaching.

By 2030 there are predicted to be more than seven million jobs in science-based industries in the UK. In a post-Brexit Britain that may limit the immigration of highly qualified workers, we need to make sure that our education system can meet that demand by increasing access to scientific knowledge, training and careers. Programmes such as Pathways to STEM offer a route to STEM degrees for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, this work becomes increasing challenging if students are faced with shrinking numbers of specialist science teachers.

 

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