I’m off to open a new block at Brighton and Hove Sixth Form College tomorrow. A shiny new building to provide fresh classrooms and additional study space, something many schools would dearly love to have. A decent working environment is undoubtedly contributory to children finding it easier to learn – rather like Virginia Woolf’s Room of her Own. Dark, dingy classrooms with poor ventilation can only hinder concentration. Too many schools have to operate under such conditions.
When considering the future of the science base through the students being educated, an important consideration needs to be the quality of the laboratory facilities provided to permit appropriate practical work to be carried out at every level. At primary school a lack of teachers feeling well-qualified and/or confident to teach such work does not help, although the actual cost of required equipment may be relatively modest. Things get worse at secondary school where there may be teachers with the right skills but who lack the requisite apparatus. A 2013 SCORE study of the school budgets assigned to practical work highlighted the dire state many teachers have to operate in. How can you carry out exciting work in a lab to stoke the curiosity of a child if only 75p pa per capita is assigned to practical work (this was the lowest figure quoted in the SCORE analysis)? The average in the state school sector was around £10 pa per capita to be contrasted with an average of £27 in private schools. That’s a big difference in money which can’t be expected to have zero impact when it comes to the enthusiasm with which a child approaches the school laboratory.
Practical work may not be going to count in assessments under the new regime, or at least in the way it traditionally has, an outcome many organisations have complained about. But that does not mean it has no worth – which is why its obliteration has been so fiercely contested. There is no doubt for many children it is precisely this practical element of work, getting their hands dirty as it were, which sparks curiosity. Finding out how things work (or how they don’t work, even why they don’t work) is an important part of getting to grips with science, whether or not the child has aspirations to further scientific study. More money into school buildings and school resources more generally are desperately needed. I hope the politicians have this firmly in their sights as they speechify up and down the country this month.
Of course the other part of my role tomorrow is not just to celebrate the clean walls and pleasing architecture, but to act as a catalyst for thought in the children who attend. I am still unclear (as I believe is the evidence in the literature) of the specific importance of role models. In particular it isn’t obvious to me that some woman nearly half a century older than the pupils is likely to inspire any particular excitement or positive identification. Sometimes it worries me that I could have a negative effect of making the future as a grown up merely seem inconceivably remote. I can’t help feeling that someone closer in age to them is more likely to enable them to believe that their career is a path they might wish to emulate.
On the other hand, experience counts for something. The kind of messages I like to give in such pep talks include:
- Don’t be fooled successful people have never had setbacks;
- Or that they’ve always known exactly what they want to do.
- Don’t believe confidence is necessarily more than skin deep.
- Realise that opportunities are there to be seized
- And that missed opportunities often leave a worse taste in the mouth than trying something new and failing at it.
I am sure that some mixture of these bullet points will feature in what I have to say before I unveil the plaque. I hope I do this more successfully than a previous ceremony I attended, carried out by a junior minister and which used to show up on Auntie’s Bloomers. I leave you with this image forever burned into my mind, featuring Edward Leigh as he opened the new laboratory I was presiding over at the Cavendish at the time (1992).