Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:24 pm on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Rees of Ludlow Lord Rees of Ludlow Crossbench 1:24 pm, 8th December 2017

My Lords, it is a privilege to offer a few brief comments from the perspective of an academic scientist. Today’s young people will live in a world ever more dependent on technology and ever more vulnerable to its failures or misdirection. Choices on how science is applied are not just for scientists to make, but for wide democratic debate to rise above sloganising all citizens need enough “feel” for science and maths to prevent their being bamboozled by propaganda or over-deferential to experts—and it is sad that so many do not have that.

It is equally regrettable that many people do not know their nation’s history, cannot speak a second language and cannot find North Korea or Syria on a map. Like history and literature, science is part of human culture. More than that, it is the one culture that is truly global. Protons, proteins and Pythagoras are the same from China to Peru, and should transcend all boundaries of nationality and faith.

The challenges of science education are changing. IT and the web offer huge benefits, but earlier generations had one advantage. When we were young, we could take apart a clock, a radio set or a motorbike, figure out how it worked and then reassemble it. That is how many of us got hooked on science. In contrast, the gadgets that now pervade our lives—smartphones and suchlike—are baffling black boxes. Even if you take them apart you will find few clues to their arcane mechanisms. The extreme sophistication of modern technology is, ironically, an impediment to engaging young people with reality and learning how things work. Likewise, town dwellers are increasingly distanced from the natural world. Many urban children never see a dark sky or a bird’s nest.

The UK is a laggard in educational attainment at secondary school age, as many speakers have emphasised, and there is a special urgency to enhance provision for the disadvantaged majority. But in higher education, too, we need a more diverse ecology than universities alone. As a university teacher, I am aware that our traditional honours degree is too specialised for almost all students. Even worse, so is the school curriculum. The campaign for an international baccalaureate-style curriculum for 16 to 18 year-olds has been impeded by universities, whose entrance requirements overtly disfavour applicants who straddle science and humanities. As a digression, I honour a prominent exemplar of straddling the two cultures, Lord Habgood, the former Archbishop of York and a physiologist by education. His speech at a British Science Association meeting was reported under the heading, “‘Monkeys may have souls,’ says Primate”.

We fetishise the special value of three years’ full-time study. An American will say, “I had two years of college”, as a positive experience, regarding college credits as a good qualification even if they are not sufficient for graduation. It is surely better for colleges to take risks on admission, give students a chance and let some leave after two years with a credit without necessarily being typecast as failures or wastage. Some will return later or continue part-time; others might pursue distance learning. I hope that the Minister will offer some comments on how to encourage transferable credits.

As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, told us, distance learning may replace the “mass university”—but it will never replicate the experience of attending a collegiate-type university. So there will be a deepening bifurcation between, on the one hand, the institutions that really offer personal mentoring and tuition—colleges or analogues of liberal arts colleges—and on the other, the Open University model. However, those who aspire to a highly selective residential university but are disadvantaged in their schooling will not get over the bar at 18. They now have no second chance. That is why it would send an encouraging signal if Oxbridge in particular were to reserve a fraction of its places for students who do not come straight from school but have earned credits online or via the Open University.

Another damaging preconception has bedevilled British education and policy for decades: the snobbish disparagement of technology. My engineering friends like an old cartoon which shows two beavers looking up at a large hydroelectric dam. One says to the other, “I didn’t actually build it, but it’s based on my idea”. That honestly illustrates the difference between the real and the perceived balance between science and technology.

We all need to be guided by values that science itself cannot provide but which a good school can instil for life. That is why we should all surely welcome the leadership of the most reverend Primate in introducing this debate.