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ASE has concerns for the position of science education in Northern Ireland

27 September 2013

In Northern Ireland, students are not required to study any science beyond age 14. This contrasts starkly with the rest of the UK and many other countries. At primary level, the lack of any prescription for science has resulted in less content being taught and an insufficient emphasis on science teaching within an enquiry based context. ASE’s Northern Ireland Region Committee has been actively working to address this situation, including briefings at Ministerial level, which have been well received. The Committee asks ASE members to support their efforts.

To find out more and add your voice to the concerns of the Committee contact the NI Field Officer Michelle Ryan michelleryan@ase.org.uk

ASE has concerns for the position of science education in Northern Ireland

Introduction

The Association for Science Education (Northern Ireland) comprises those professionals in Northern Ireland who work in and with our primary and post-primary schools as teachers. We are concerned by the impact the revised curriculum has had on the opportunities to prepare and inspire youngster in STEM subjects. Our committee has worked tirelessly to reverse the policy, including a number of briefings with Ministers, MLAs and officials, most recently to the Education Committee on the 19th September. The Committee members were once again really receptive to our cause. It has been suggested that to strengthen our cause with the Minister we require further evidence of support from the education professionals and other groups including businesses and industry.

The situation

Many countries which are actively pursuing strategies to attract more young people into STEM subjects report leaks in their STEM pipeline, with STEM subjects losing students at every educational transition point. These countries also identify the composition of the pipeline as a cause for concern as it has been noted that the leaks show certain patterns in regards to educational access, gender, and quality of provision[i]. The NI STEM report (2009) identified the same trends along with a number of targeted strategies aimed at tackling these. Given that many of these strategies are time and cost intensive for the government, business community and volunteers, it is imperative that they are targeted at the largest cohort possible in order to use these strategies to their full potential.

The ASE in Northern Ireland is concerned about the retention of science students within the Northern Ireland STEM pipeline. Shortly after the transition to secondary school (a noted narrowing point in the pipeline) students at 14 years old can make a decision not to study science, which will undoubtedly impact them many of them in the future but which may not be clear or important to them at this stage of their education. Therefore the timeframe available to retain the maximum number of science students is worryingly short and dependant on students having positive attitudes to science at age 14. We need to ensure that all pupils have a positive experience of science before this choice is made. Scientific enquiry in primary school provides an ideal opportunity to enthuse youngsters with the “awe and wonder” of science and introduce them to the scientific method in a less exam driven environment.

Our concerns

    1. The lack of any prescription in science at primary school has resulted in less content being taught and an insufficient amount of science teaching within an enquiry based context.
    2. The lack of clear lines of progression between primary and post-primary and the impact that this is having on pupils’ attitudes towards science when for many they start their formal science education at eleven.
    3. In Northern Ireland pupils’ are not required to study any science past fourteen.
    4. The lack of science advisors and continuing professional development opportunities for teachers to develop and improve their science teaching. 

ASE’s Northern Ireland Committee is calling for:

  1. A short statement of statutory content to be taught by the end of primary school.
  2. The provision of effective sustainable continuing professional development to support primary teachers with planning and delivery. We would suggest that this should focus on the sharing of best practice from excellent classroom practitioners.
  3. In the longer term science needs to be made compulsory post 14 to put it in line with the rest of the UK and many other leading countries.
  4. Regular evaluation of the effectiveness of science education through the full STEM pipeline.

Evidence from elsewhere

  1. An example of excellent practice in evaluation of a science curriculum is the Scottish 3-18 curriculum impact report 
  2. Scotland - Scottish Education for Excellence which considers science education from 5 +
  3. United States of America  K-12 (Kindergarten to Yr12) 

Our request

Please write to either or both of the people below with your views. In particular we in the ASE would urge you to support in the strongest possible terms the re-inclusion of science as a core subject between the ages 4-16.

Chris Hazzard - Sinn Fein Education Spokesperson, Room 356, Parliament Buildings, Ballymiscaw, Stormont, Belfast, BT4 3XX 

John O Dowd, Minister of Education, Rathgael House, Rathgill, Bangor, BT19 7PR 

For further information please contact ASE’s Field Officer for Northern Ireland, Michelle Ryan michelleryan@ase.org.uk


[i]  Northern Ireland Government report of the STEM Review (2009)