Lord Winston: We must invest more in science teaching at primary level

Posted On: 
11th March 2019

In order to engage children in STEM subjects, we need to improve the standard of science teaching, says Lord Robert Winston

Research suggests that 85% of scientists were first gripped by STEM because they saw or did exciting experiments

Primary school education is undervalued. And we certainly undervalue primary teachers. Eight-year-old humans are enquiring, unafraid to ask questions and mostly eager to learn. At this age, their brain is at its most plastic. But in a large class a child’s curiosity can be inconvenient. Enthusiasm is too easily dampened and many children soon become discouraged if they feel a subject is poorly taught, too difficult or not relevant. In our school system, too many children are lost by the age of 11.

Science, technology, engineering and maths – otherwise known as STEM subjects – are rational and should be easy. But a teacher untrained in science may make science seem difficult and obscure.

Moreover, a great deal of science is practical and is often much more exciting and better understood using live demonstrations. Better still if children get their hands wet while working things out for themselves at a bench.

Research suggests that 85% of scientists were first gripped by STEM because they saw or did exciting experiments. I remember making simple crystal sets when I was 10. My limited pocket money meant slightly better equipment yet excruciatingly uncomfortable headphones. But eventually I could listen secretly under the bedclothes. I became spellbound by magical radio waves even though the Russian broadcasts I heard were unintelligible and messages in Morse completely undecipherable.

About 93% of primary teachers are women. Fewer than 10% have a science degree. Most of these graduated in biology but very few specialised in physics or chemistry. Only one third of those teaching science are teaching the speciality of their training. They are mostly excellent and highly dedicated, but limited knowledge makes it hard to impart technical subjects.

Recently, I visited a school to do simple experiments with the various gases in the air we breathe. I asked my audience of nine-year-olds to name the most common gas in our atmosphere. They suggested, in turn, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and oxygen. Only one little boy – in an audience of 150 – tentatively put up his hand and said “Nitrogen?” To my embarrassment and the boy’s distress, his nearby science teacher pushed his upstretched arm down and told him he was wrong. The boy had answered correctly.

Such absence of basic knowledge means teachers frequently lack confidence and avoid the practical work which most engages children. Moreover, many state schools have completely inadequate premises for laboratory work and technical assistants are a rare luxury. Health and safety becomes an excuse not to undertake practicals. But in truth there is insufficient investment in primary schools at this most important stage of a child’s intellectual development.

It seemed obvious to us that most universities have facilities and equipment which would fascinate schoolchildren. So, 12 years ago at Imperial College London, we established the Wohl Reach Out Lab. During termtime, youngsters aged 7-18 come daily from schools across London to do practical science. During school holidays, the university campus buzzes with expanded activity as excited children do experiments in the laboratories and fire rockets from the lawn in the quadrangle.

We try to enhance their understanding of the curriculum and are increasingly doing more for primary school pupils. Here they wonder at the beauty of tissues under their microscopes, learn how to use mathematics as an integral part of experimental work, and marvel at exciting chemical reactions.

These children have the opportunity to use advanced apparatus unavailable in most state or even independent schools. After their break for lunch they may walk across campus to see university students enjoying experiments using complex equipment. Most importantly, during their day out they get to meet female and male role models little older than themselves.

Our deeply impressive undergraduate and graduate students come from many different ethnic backgrounds. They teach and demonstrate under supervision, with joy and wonder. In doing so they teach collaboration rather than competition, demonstrate the importance of accepting failure and show how scientists learn to use such failure to acquire new information.

'Teachers frequently lack confidence and avoid the practical work which most engages children'

Sometimes the teachers who come with their pupils re-evaluate how they communicate. When they return to their own classrooms, they often use some of the strategies that they saw were successful in our lab. And during holidays, with finances permitting, we can occasionally run professional career development for primary teachers returning briefly to a university environment. Our generous donors include the Wohl Charity, the Weston Foundation, the Dangoor family and the Dorset Foundation. Their support was a vital ingredient in setting up these activities.

Our work needs to be properly evaluated. Our second PhD student is now on the way to completing his research. He studies whether we enhance the science literacy of school pupils. So far, the results look encouraging. But we do not know what effect we shall have had on school students in the longer term, 10 years later. But one most encouraging aspect is that we seem to have influenced the culture of Imperial College. More graduates from our leading science institution now consider a teaching career.

I seldom teach in this lab now. My main contribution is travelling to schools outside London. I regret I must irritate my frontbench by missing many opportunities to vote in divisions in the house. But perhaps it’s worth it. In the last 12 months alone, I have spoken to well over 50,000 school students in England, mostly visiting schools in poorer parts of the country where children may show early disaffection with education and lose ambition.

I often feel depressed on my journey back home. We tend to measure our academic success by what happens in the south-east and London. This seldom reflects the wider experience of the country. We must reconsider the national underfunding of so much education. Above all we have to understand how much we undervalue primary schools and their hard-pressed teachers.

Lord Robert Winston is a Labour peer, professor of science and society, and emeritus professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London