Post-16 education must be reformed to tackle damaging arts-science divide

Stop dividing children into arts and science specialists at an age when they are not ready to choose. Pete/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Education sits at the heart of our society – and politicians know it. When Tony Blair famously said “education, education, education” it was essentially an election slogan. We are constantly told by our politicians that English A levels are the “gold standard” in education. I say, maybe it’s time for a rethink.

At the heart of the problem is the early specialisation in post-16 education. As a practising scientist I like to think that I can at least have some understanding of any science story presented in the news. But for a large proportion of the population that isn’t the case; our society almost seems to believe that the situation is a virtue. If a politician says “I never could do maths” no one thinks “Philistine”, whereas if they admitted to never having read any Shakespeare or Dickens the reaction would be very different. Why does our society think this is OK?

Science underpins so many decisions; political and personal. In our daily life and jobs, we increasingly need to use quantitative skills: the ability to interpret graphs, utilise spreadsheets and manipulate data. Our national academies recognise this, with a recent report from the British Academy to go with last year’s Vision report from the Royal Society, both calling for all students to continue with some form of maths post-16.

This issue cuts both ways of course. Scientists need to be able to write and communicate better. Whether or not they can quote chunks of poetry, ancient or modern, is not the point. Scientists need to be able to write lucidly and put their work in context. Just about every branch of science is going to touch on the human condition and they need to be able to understand what their research means for the public. Some grasp of history, literature and social science could help them communicate this.

So in my upcoming Presidential Address to the British Science Association, I will be urging politicians to reconsider the structure of our post-16 education. England and Wales are unlike almost all other developed countries in our early specialisation. This leads to a damaging divide between arts and science.

Maybe we could learn a thing to two from Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci? wikimedia

Implicitly, at the point of choosing GCSE topics, a 14-year-old will see themselves heading off in one direction or the other. Schools sometimes appear to encourage this, perhaps for the simple reason of easing the timetable. A broader post-16 education would mean moving from the typically narrow choices of A levels to something akin to the European Baccalaureate system (or perhaps the Scottish Higher system), where more subjects are studied for longer.

The teaching shortage

Of course, all this would require an adequate supply of qualified teachers. Currently, however, we neither have enough teachers entering the profession nor staying on for long subsequently. This is a massive problem in many subjects.

In primary school teaching, many schools have no one qualified in science or with a maths degree (the Vision report says only 3% and 5% of primary school teachers have maths and science degrees or specialist teaching qualifications in those subjects respectively). In turn this creates a confidence problem: teachers who haven’t looked at a maths problem since they were 16 are expected to teach numeracy skills they may feel unsure about themselves.

This problem is particularly acute when there is no one else with more relevant experience in the school to whom they can turn for specific advice. This is no criticism of the teachers themselves, but, when teachers have to teach beyond their own areas of confidence and competence, it is harder for them to stimulate the children and to answer their questions.

In the sciences a related problem occurs at secondary school. Teachers may be science teachers, but if their qualification is in biology it is tough for them to teach GCSE physics. Again, this is not meant to apportion blame to the teachers. The Institute of Physics has suggested we need 1000 more physics graduates a year entering the teaching profession if we are to reach a situation where a third of science teachers are qualified in physics – and it would still take 15 years.

To do this would need around a quarter of all physics graduates training as teachers each year. It is hard to imagine that happening, particularly given the level of salaries graduates can otherwise command.

England has this strange habit of splitting our children up into arts and sciences at an age when hormones are surging and peer pressure is liable to be at its most powerful. We should be pressing the government to modify our system so that all children keep studying a broad range of subjects post-16 – and providing adequate funding to do so. In time this would translate into primary school teachers with more confidence to enthuse the next generation in maths and science.

Furthermore, this change would empower everyone to be able to make better-informed decisions about the things that affect them in their everyday life and to make sure that day by day people are able to cope with the numeracy requirements of their jobs with confidence.