CBI warns of science slump

The CBI today warned that too many young people are turning their back on science and technology because of faults in the education system.



According to the CBI, thousands of potential scientists are being lost because of a stripped-down science curriculum, a lack of specialist teachers and uninspiring careers advice.


Consequently the UK‘s world-class science base is being eroded at a time when new international competitors are emerging and traditional rivals are getting stronger, the CBI said.


The problems begin in secondary school and reverberate up the education system to such an extent that the number of A level pupils studying physics has fallen 56 per cent in 20 years. Over the same period those studying A level chemistry has dropped 37 per cent.


And over the last decade the number of graduates who leave university with a degree in physics, engineering or technology has slumped, as a proportion of the whole, by a third: only 32,000 undergraduates qualified in these subjects last year.


But demand for jobs such as chemists, physicists, engineers, and lab technicians has been rising consistently, and by 2014 the country will need to have found 2.4 million new people with these skills to meet expected need.


The disparity between supply and demand is such that some British-based businesses are already starting to recruit from overseas because of a shortage of candidates from the UK. At the same time China, India, Brazil and Eastern Europe are producing hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers every year to drive their development and growth.


‘Employers are increasingly worried about the long-term decline in numbers studying A level physics, chemistry and maths, and the knock-on effect on these subjects, and engineering, at university,’ said CBI Director-General Richard Lambert. ‘They see, at first hand, the young people who leave school and university looking for a job, and compare them to what they need – and increasingly are looking overseas for graduates.


‘This is not a criticism of young people – they work hard to achieve the best possible grades in the system provided. But it is clear we need more specialised teachers to share their enthusiasm for science and fire the imaginations of pupils, and to persuade them to study the core individual disciplines to high levels.


‘We must smash the stereotypes that surround science and re-brand it as desirable and exciting; a gateway to some fantastic career opportunities. But the UK risks being knocked off its perch as a world-leader in science, engineering and technology. We cannot afford for this to happen.


‘The Government does have time to tackle these problems before they become critical. However this means it must set itself more challenging targets, not settle for easily achievable ones which do not deliver for the needs of the country quickly enough.’


Non-specialist teachers admit to a lack of confidence, expertise and training when it comes to teaching science. They are less likely go beyond the basic demands of the curriculum and to excite students. As a result, fewer pupils pursue the subject at A level or opt to study less-challenging subjects that are seen as easier to do well in.


A quarter of secondary schools do not have a teacher sufficiently trained in physics. One in five science teachers has a specialist physics qualification, and one in four chemistry teachers has a specialist qualification in the subject.


Adding to these concerns, the vacancy rate for all maths and science teachers is 50 per cent higher than for any other subjects. Independent research shows one in three physics teachers is expected to retire in the next ten years while up to half of all new science teachers leave the profession within five years because of the workload, poor pupil behaviour, and low salaries.


The CBI recognises the Government has been addressing the problem with its training bursaries for science teachers and ‘golden helloes’, and the number of science and maths teachers is increasing, albeit very slowly. The CBI is urging ministers to build on this work as a priority.

Partly through a lack of specialist teachers, and partly because of a lack of choice, over three-quarters of school children study Double Award Science, which crams three disciplines in to the time normally given to two, rather than three individual disciplines. This can leave teenagers ill equipped for A level and the lack of practical skills is often exposed at university where many tutors have to organise catch-up courses.