Good science teachers are celebrities in today’s schools

I cannot remember a single science lesson I enjoyed at school. The teachers never managed to engage me. Many no doubt assumed I should be looking forward to their lesson on the timetable, but I entered their classrooms dreading the mass of technical detail that would be presented to me, expecting from the outset to fail to understand what was going on.

My eldest daughter went to a highly selective girls school for part of her schooling. Its exam results always secured top-ten placings in the national league tables. But its physics teachers, almost invariably of poor quality, seemed to last for 12 months at best. It was a running joke among the students that the beginning-of-year ritual would involve being introduced to their latest physics teacher. Good science teachers are feted by schools as celebrities, they have become so rare. Even those schools with the starriest academic reputations find it nigh-on impossible to attract strong scientists, who are effective teachers, to work for them. One problem is that teaching science just hasn’t managed to make itself as sexy as it should have done. The other is that science teaching has all too often been exclusively constructed for, and focused on, particular student personality types.

If we simply think of what has been invented over the past few years that we now take for granted – the ubiquitous GPS apps that we all rely on, iPhones that give us instant access to any information we want via ‘Siri’, vacuum cleaners that have more sucking power than anything you can think of, or the eradication of polio or the huge reduction in malaria in Africa brought about by the work of the Gates Foundation, or self-driving cars, surely science automatically becomes hugely fascinating? How did all of this happen? What discoveries made them possible? Surely science is the most magical subject area in the school curriculum! Science teachers should think of themselves as scientists first and teachers second. They should constantly be collecting Why questions from the world around them. They should explain the maths behind space exploration, or why combine harvesters have doubled farm yields over the past 20 years, or why deadly tsunamis happen. The world is an endlessly fascinating and dangerous and amazing place. I fail to understand why we have not managed to attract more scientists into schools to share their fascination and try to explain some of the phenomena. They don’t all have to possess the charisma of Robert Winston or Susan Greenfield or Maggie Aderin-Pocock (although it would help), but they do need to be fascinated. I suspect the problem is in large part down to the fact that so few headteachers are trained scientists. Your typical school principal has an arts degree – probably English. Is it any wonder then that science is not prioritised?

I consider my own science education: both of my parents were doctors, suggesting there was nothing wrong in my natural ability to learn science, yet I was totally switched off. Got to be a nurture problem, right? Why do schools find it acceptable to put mediocre teachers into their science departments? At the secondary school in Brixton whose governing body I chaired for six years, I questioned the head as to why we were keeping one of the teachers whose student outcomes were consistently inadequate, or barely adequate. He told me that they had tried to recruit someone better, but failed. Many schools have brought in science teachers from the Far East, but anecdotal feedback would suggest that this is no panacea as linguistic and cultural issues often make the transition less successful than was hoped for. The principal argued that a bad teacher was better than no teacher. I told him how much I disagreed, and pointed to research aggregations from the Education Endowment Foundation that backed up my position. I argued that, as a temporary measure, we’d be better off having one really good science teacher teaching classes of 50 to 60 than submit 25/30 students to what we knew was poor teaching. In the end we employed a science graduate, with no teaching qualification, to support the work of the very successful science teacher in the next class, and they worked closely together. I believe the unqualified teacher then trained and achieved qualified teacher status shortly afterwards.

We know so much more about personality types and how they interact withe world, than we used to. I know I’m an ENTJ on Myers Briggs, I’m a type 3, wing 2 on Enneagram, and my Gallup strengths finder plots my key strengths as strategic, learner, competitor, activator, relator. I need to see the big picture before I am engaged. I want an overview of the journey before I take a step forward or I’m unsure as to what I’m doing. I respond exceptionally badly to being told just to do as I am told.

And yet, so much science teaching is designed more for introverts, for those who love puzzles, for the detail oriented, for those who revel in intricacy. Here’s a picture of osmosis happening. So what? Why is it the slightest bit interesting to me?

Well, if it didn’t happen, you’d die. It’s one of the most exciting occurrences in biology. And so on. Except that no science teacher ever proferred the latter, by way of incentive to study.

I am hugely envious of those who had, or have, superb science teachers: who fascinate, intrigue, challenge, lead, enable the learners before them. I’d love to hear from people who can describe these skilled professionals in more detail. If we can do that, then we’ll better know how to go out and find more of them.

We’re making headway, and the take up of STEM subjects is increasing when students come to choosing options for deeper study. Various government programmes to attract people into science teaching are having some success. But I really hope a whole-scale revolution will happen in this area because our country and young people will be transformed when it does.

Part of this post has been adapted from the chapter on ‘Developing mystique and reputation’ in my book, Mining for Gold: stories of effective teachers, published by John Catt