Education & Family

Lack of science and maths skills 'can hamper adults'

Girls in physics lesson Image copyright IOP
Image caption Too few students are taking sciences and maths after the age of 16, says a leading scientist

Adults who lack basic science and maths skills risk being "bamboozled" and making bad decisions, according to a leading scientist.

Teaching maths and science to all up to 18 would "produce a wiser population", says new British Science Association president Dame Athene Donald.

Prof Donald will use her address to next week's British Science Festival to urge major changes to UK education.

In particular, pupils are asked to specialise too young, she will argue.

"Citizens need to be empowered to make good decisions in their private lives - be it about vaccinations, mobile phone masts or climate change," she will tell the festival, at Bradford University.

In order for this to happen, she will say, more young people need to be interested in and comfortable with science.

She believes the problem starts young, with too few teachers able to teach primary school science or trained as subject specialists at secondary level.

'Sheep and goats'

Forcing pupils to make subject choices from the age of 14, effectively divides the nation "into sheep and goats, science people and arts people", she will argue.

"Too often we find ourselves apparently in opposing camps - and our culture these days always makes it seem as if the scientists are the outsiders.

"We may be mocked if our knowledge of Shakespeare or Austen isn't perfect, but it is still OK to say 'I could never do maths at school.'"

Echoing calls for a shift to a Baccalaureate-type exam to give a broader, less specialist education for post-16s than is currently available, Prof Donald will say that "in most other countries, children are simply not allowed not to study maths right up until they leave school".

She will also hit out at gender stereotyping which she says has seen too few women in science.

Image copyright JOHN MORTON

"We need to change mindsets of teachers and parents alike," she will say, "to ensure that both genders get equal airtime in the classroom, that boys don't hog the apparatus."

"Because science is so integral in our everyday lives, having an attitude that it's all nasty, scary and dangerous stuff is enormously unhelpful if not positively dangerous.

"We should be working hard to ensure parents are not bamboozled by basic facts."

'Picking a mortgage'

A spokesman for England's Department for Education agreed maths and science were "vital" in everyday life, "whether you are running your own business of trying to pick the best mortgage".

Thousands more students are now leaving education with good GCSEs in science and maths subjects, said the spokesman, while the number of A-level entries in these subjects has risen by more than 38,000 since 2010.

"The new, robust, national curriculum introduced last year includes extra emphasis on maths at primary school and will be introducing new science GCSEs next year," he added.

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