Why the CBI should keep their mouths shut sometimes

Oh look, apparently the sciences are in grave trouble in the universities and pupils are shying away from them at A Level, rather like seeing Gary Glitter in a kindergarten. So what is the CBI’s considered response to the problem of encouraging more students to do science?

Bribe them to do science, of course. Because money solves everything, doesn’t it?

And of course, these two headlines from yesterday’s Observer (Too many pupils taking ‘easy’ A-levels and Students shew a week grasp of ritten Inglish) don’t help to instill further confidence in the situation. The first article contains this little gem:

‘This smacks of utter desperation by the maths and science community, or whoever is coming out with this poppycock,’ said Ian McNeilly, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English. ‘Just because there is a low failure rate does not mean an exam is easier. If they want to fight for their subjects, then I admire that, but do not start knocking long-established subjects.’

A lower failure rate in some subjects suggests one of two things to me: either the exam is easier or the pupils taking it are more able. Evidence would suggest the latter is not the case (fairly large random sample, and possibly a small overlap between those doing both sets of subjects). This only leaves the first option.

In many ways, subjects like English are actually easier. Why? An English graduate, for example, needs to have the facility to write well, read and understand texts, analyse texts and assemble arguments. Not in itself easy, let’s make that clear. A science graduate, however, requires all of those things, plus a command of a whole second language: mathematics. I was reading a biography of Douglas Adams very recently which summed it up nicely: an awful lot of scientists have side interests in music, literature, art and culture. How many artists could tell you what Planck’s constant is or what it means? It is also a fallacy to think that scientist too do not need the ability to write cogently and well because they too need to communicate their ideas and work somehow.

Then Mr McNeilly came out with this little pearl:

Science graduates, added McNeilly, already had an advantage in terms of what they earned in the workplace and did not need any more.

Has he looked at salaries for trained researchers in the science sector recently? Of course not, he teaches English. In fact, scientists tend to be exceptionally badly paid compared to many other sectors of industry (including those arts graduates who end up in publishing and television).

Anyway, if all of this seems like a rather rambling aside, let’s get back to the point on which I started my minor rant, which is that the CBI are fairly stupid to think that bribery is really going to help matters much. The problem lies first with the poor state of teaching of science within schools. Kids are turned off science quite early and will never come back.

Second, science is harder. It just is. Many of the skills you learn in English can transfer just as well to Sociology or History, for example. The research, analytical and writing skills are pretty much the same. Studying science, mathematics or even some branches of philosophy is harder because you have to contend with acquiring the additional mastery of that second language. The same kind of idea applies to those doing languages.

Why is the CBI, the advocate of the market, so surprised that pupils and students are playing the game and working it? A system that focuses simply on A Level points and makes no distinction between subjects will always encourage students to the subjects where they think they can maximise points. And this is the behaviour we see.

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