September 2010


  • Feeling the pinch
    Even before the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, schools and colleges are under pressure to reduce their running costs. Some have already secured huge savings – both in money and staff time – by harnessing technology to help them manage more efficiently. Lucie Carrington reports. More
  • A head for science
    Liz Lightfoot talks to Sir John Holman about his role as director of the National Science Learning Centre and why he believes league tables and exam boards have diluted the science curriculum. More
  • What the papers say
    Securing positive press coverage can work wonders for a school or college, making it look successful and more attractive to prospective parents and the local community. And a good relationship with local newspapers can also pay dividends with staff and students, says Gareth Davies. More
  • Sixth sense
    A new framework for 16-19 year-olds which recognises both academic and extra-curricular achievements could be a blueprint for the future. Principals Jackie Johnston and David Adelman explain how it works. More
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Liz Lightfoot talks to Sir John Holman about his role as director of the National Science Learning Centre and why he believes league tables and exam boards have diluted the science curriculum.

A head for science

However much school leaders love their jobs there must be times when the thought of a quiet office and a long-term project in the company of like-minded adults appeals.

So it was for Sir John Holman when he left the headship of Watford Grammar School for Boys to take up a professorship in the chemistry department of the University of York.

Ten years later as he prepares for yet another chapter in his long career – he steps down from his role as the director of the National Science Learning Centre this month – he looks back with nostalgia at his time as a headteacher.

“When you are a headteacher you are multi-tasking all day long. Things are coming at you from all directions and you are making quick decisions about two or three things at once. Academics don’t work that way. You tend to work in depth in a considered way. Getting used to that different way of working was the biggest challenge.”

In fact, he had very little time to settle to the more leisurely pace of life. Within four years he had founded the national centre at York, funded by the Wellcome Trust, and its nine satellite branches, which is paid for by the Department for Education and provides professional development and resources for science teachers. The newly-opened National STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) Centre is also at the York site.

Two years later, in 2006, he was chosen by the then-Labour government as the first national director of STEM and charged with the responsibility of increasing the country’s output of scientists and engineers.

He leaves his post at York as the coalition government gets into its stride but his departure had nothing to do with the change of government, he emphasises, and he hopes to “continue to have fruitful exchanges” with the new administration.

He has plenty of experience of working with Conservative politicians. He was appointed in 1988 by Lord Baker, then Secretary of State for Education, to the science working group which drew up the first continuous and consistent (containing biology, chemistry and physics) science curriculum for five to 16-year-olds for the National Curriculum.

Teacher shortage

The curriculum is 21 this year and it has brought enormous improvements in science teaching, according to Sir John. Why then is the country still crying out for qualified science teachers, physicists and engineers?

A lot of things have happened since which have diluted some of the big gains, he argues. One of them is league tables which point schools and pupils in the direction of subjects where it is perceived to be easier to get the top grades.

Some critics say it also comes down to the shortage of high quality, specialist science teachers in the state sector – does he agree?

“If you take science teachers as a whole then only 19 per cent are physics specialists, 25 per cent are chemistry specialists and the rest are biologists,” he says. “Not only are there shortages but there are quality issues, in the sense that a higher percentage of physics teachers have degrees below a 2:1 than, say, history teachers.”

Another significant factor is that one in four of 11-16 schools have no physics specialist at all and such gaps in the profession are exactly what his centre was set up to tackle.

Numbers taking physics post-16 are creeping up but part of the problem is the way girls have turned their backs on the subject, he says. Indeed, only a quarter of the physics A level candidates are female – 5,870 compared with 20,740 men last year.

“It is a really serious and deeply intractable problem, and it is not for want of trying,” he says, pointing out that half of chemistry candidates are female and in maths the figure is 40 per cent and rising.

“There is a lot of research about what makes physics less attractive to girls and the biggest single factor is boring teaching. Girls are more sensitive to both good and bad extremes of teaching than boys so high quality teaching makes a big difference.”

He points to the National STEM Centre’s new e-library – a vast collection of teaching and learning resources, current and from the archives, which can be accessed online – as a highly significant development in terms of support for science teaching.

“If you go on to Google and look up the teaching of the reactivity of metals you get a huge and totally unmanageable amount of responses,” he says. “If you go to the National STEM Centre e-library you will get a crisp and careful selection of resources and you don’t even have to log in, anyone can use them.”

Loss of scientific content

For other science critics, however, it is not the quality of teaching as much as the content of the curriculum that is in question. Some independent schools which have switched to IGCSE and the Pre-U argue that these exams have retained scientific content which has been lost in GCSE, A level and other public exams.

Meanwhile, some leading scientists complain that key scientific areas have come out of the syllabuses to make way for ethical issues and discussion about how science works, for instance debates about whether nuclear power is a good idea replacing learning about radioactivity.

Under Sir John, the national centre was responsible for 21st Century Science, a curriculum for scientific literacy which has been the model for the revised Key Stage 4 curriculum on which the new GCSEs are based. But he doesn’t accept that it is “the wicked people of York” who are to blame for this alleged shift from hard facts to ‘issues’.

“We have seen a very serious reduction in the amount of mathematics in GCSE and A level sciences. It has happened progressively over the last couple of decades and it is difficult to know where it is coming from,” he says.

If he had to hazard a guess he would point to the exam boards.

“I think exam boards have equated mathematics with difficulty and people are saying ‘Our exams are too difficult’. One way of dealing with that and letting the students get better grades is to take the maths out. A lot of it has to do with market share.

“It is not always easy to reconcile the fact that these are great subjects for employability with the reality that people think they are difficult,” he adds.

“There is a temptation for teachers, when they have a young person who is not a high-flier asking if they should do maths A level, to advise them against it. But the reality is that maths is a better subject to have, even for students who are not going to make the top grade.”

Sir John says he is stepping down to give himself “more room for manoeuvre”. He will be following areas of research that interest him, writing books and teaching undergraduates.

But his first project will be to evaluate how the informal sector – museums and outside the classroom experiences – can help the learning process. His long love affair with the science curriculum continues.

The National STEM Centre’s e-library can be found at:

Sir John Holman