Shortage of specialist teachers ‘leaving science in a cul-de-sac’

The shortage of trained physics and chemistry teachers has placed school science teaching in a cul-de-sac, with both pupils and teachers suffering as a result, new research has suggested.

Birendra Singh, of the UCL Institute of Education, in London, spent seven years conducting detailed qualitative research into science teaching.

He found that many teachers lacked sufficient knowledge in several areas of the science curriculum. However, they were reluctant to request professional-development sessions from senior managers “in case it was seen as a sign of weakness and used against them”, Dr Singh said.

The researcher cites the example of a science teacher who was summoned to his headteacher’s office to discuss below-target Year 10 results. The teacher explained that the Year 10 course included a large amount of chemistry, and that this was not his specialist subject.

Instead of being offered professional development, he was “told to find a job where he would not need to teach chemistry”, Dr Singh said. In the interim, the headteacher began regularly inspecting the teacher’s lessons.

Any professional development offered to teachers tended to focus on what Ofsted inspectors wanted to see in lessons, rather than the specific needs of the staff involved, Dr Singh added.

He observed three comprehensive schools for his study. All of them placed pupils in streams (referred to as “fast”, “upper” and “middle”).

Specialist teachers were invariably allocated to the top (fast) stream. And often the top stream was given access to external speakers, denied to the other two streams. “The fast band gets treated differently,” one teacher told Dr Singh. “They are the privileged ones.”

One teenage boy said: “Fast band, they get a teacher for biology, chemistry and physics – one teacher for each. In upper band, you only get one teacher … for all three subjects.”

This allocation of resources made many teachers uncomfortable, the study found. One said: “I thought we were here for all children, and every child mattered.”

Speaking at the recent British Education Research Association conference, Dr Singh called on the government to take serious action to tackle the shortage of specialist physics and chemistry teachers.

“The findings present sombre reading about the condition of science teaching in state schools, and prompt the question as to whether school science has entered a cul-de-sac from which it needs to be turned around,” he said.

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