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Science Teaching

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:43 am on 15th January 2008.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills 11:43 am, 15th January 2008

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak, although as I fear that I may not be able to stay for the closing speeches the Minister will be relieved to hear that I shall not ask too many questions of him. There is science business in the House of Lords today, and it may take me away.

Instead of going on the trip by the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills to a seminar, I wanted to attend today's debate in order to support Dr. Iddon and congratulate him on his work on the subject under discussion. This is one of a series of tributes that I have paid to him for his efforts in raising the profile of important science issues—not just chemistry and teaching—in the House. I agree with almost everything that he said today, so I shall stress just a couple of points.

There is a fundamental problem: the shortage of specialist teachers. It creates a vicious circle; if students are not inspired to study science subjects at university because they have not had an inspiring specialist teacher, they will not graduate in that subject and at least consider the option of a teaching career—in the state sector especially. The real issue is that the Government have to break that vicious circle. We must recognise that numerate graduates who understand science and are well trained in its methods are attractive not only to industry and teaching, but also in the City and in jobs that pay far better than public sector jobs such as teaching.

The Government must consider whether the huge burden of student debt imposed as a result of their student funding policies is a factor in the career choices of well-qualified science graduates. There is evidence of that, and although the Minister is quite right to point out that some statistics are misleading—as he claimed about the programme for international student assessment studies—one rarely hears the Government point out misleading statistics when it is not in their favour to do so. The Minister is smiling. I suspect that all political parties are guilty of such practice, so I accept that point, if it is the point he makes, but I campaign within my party to ensure that we improve our performance in that regard. There is, none the less, an undoubted impact when people are burdened with debt and have either the opportunity of a golden hello or the prospect of not being able to afford to buy their own house because they are in a less well-paid public sector job.

There are also issues about women in science teaching, women in science careers and female science graduates staying in science. There is clear evidence that debt has a particular impact on female graduates, and we will not solve the problem until we address the issues for women in science.

The Minister ought to consider the impact of the closure of science centres, which are an inspiration to many students, and indeed, to teaching staff, but are not Government-funded. The centres have an uncertain future because their business plans were approved without adequate scrutiny during the millennium handouts, and unlike museums that promote arts subjects, they do not receive Government funding, whether or not they have collections. I look forward to the Government's response to the report by the Select Committee on Science and Technology on science centres.

There is an anti-science culture, and it may have an impact on the willingness of students—particularly the brighter ones with many options before them—to take up or at least to be enthusiastic about science. There is an anti-rational movement in this country. Today, there is a demonstration outside the House of Lords against certain aspects of embryo research, where people will wear rabbit and cow costumes or masks to imply that early-stage, inter-species embryos, which will be needed to study embryological and genetic matters, are somehow equivalent to the creation of chimerical monsters. That is ridiculous, but it is the sort of idea that the media promote, and we must ensure that in schools there is a fight against such anti-genetic modification propaganda and, for that matter, against some of the anti-vivisection material that gets into schools.

The Government must draw a line in the sand and say that they will not accept the teaching of creationism in schools, either in science lessons—as they and the official Opposition have said—or as fact in religious education lessons. In RE lessons, it might be taught that some people believe in creationism, because it is a sincere belief, albeit one that I think is wrong, but there should be no instruction that creationism is equivalent to evolution, only that it is a belief. It is not science, and it is not knowledge in that sense.

The hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned the need to ensure that dissection can be performed in schools. Even if it puts off a few, it can encourage others, and the Government have a challenge to reintroduce such measures in schools.

I know that the Minister is interested in these matters, and I was delighted that he held his seat at the last election. He is one of my favourite Ministers, and I hope that he will look favourably on the subject of the debate.