Page last updated at 12:57 GMT, Friday, 11 December 2009

Science schools 'should select'

The report suggested schools worked with universities on science

Specialist science schools are not the centres of excellence they should be because they do not select by ability, a leading academic says.

Professor Alan Smithers also says many schools take on specialisms not because they are good at them, but to get extra funds for improvement.

Schools should work with universities to become science centres, he says, with places going to the most able.

The government said academic selection would harm the education system.

We have language schools that are better at science than the specialist science schools.
Professor Smithers

Currently there are a number of specialist science schools around the country that are "not necessarily good at science," said Prof Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.

"Some of them have become specialist science schools because they weren't much good at science and they want extra money to provide the specialist teachers and they hope to improve."

"The really weird thing about our present arrangement is that we have language schools that are better at science than the specialist science schools," he added.

This created a confusing situation for parents of children who were good at subjects like science, as they were not sure whether they should be trying to get their children into these schools.

Prof Smithers and his team looked at the way specialist science schools were run in countries which are seen as strong on science, including Japan, Korea, Singapore, the Netherlands and the US.

The researchers found some of them were very competitive and effective at producing highly skilled science graduates.

'Emotional hang-up'

Prof Smithers said England should follow their example and allow specialist science schools to select pupils by ability for science at the age of 14.

Although all specialist schools can select up to 10% of pupils by aptitude for the subject, this is rarely done in specialist science schools because in practice it is difficult to differentiate between aptitude and ability for the subject. Selection by ability is not permitted.

Prof Smithers suggested schools could use a number of methods such as setting tasks, tests, interviews and looking at a record of prior attainment. They would not have to use a single, one-off test like the 11-plus.

"The top science countries make no bones about identifying the most talented and educating them to the fullest extent.

"England has specialist science schools, but curiously they are not allowed to admit on science ability, which rather defeats the object," he added.

Here there was an "emotional hang-up" about the 11-plus and academic selection, he said.

A-level take-up

This was not a grammar school by another name, but would ensure that the pupils who could really benefit from high quality science teaching would do so.

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "We agree that high performing science students should be stretched but ministers are crystal clear that any expansion in academic selection simply damages the education system.

"All specialist science schools have been required to offer triple science to the highest performing pupils at the end of Key Stage 3 since 2008.

"People need to look at the impact on A-level take-up carefully over the next few years instead of writing their work off."

A spokesman for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust said: "Specialist science colleges and the government's STEM strategy has seen a significant increase in the number of students studying science and improvement in results.

"Students in science colleges are twice as likely to study a separate science than students in all other schools."

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