Inspire pupils now to get more great teachers later

Science teachers can be powerful role models. Picture: Getty

Science teachers can be powerful role models. Picture: Getty

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This year’s campaign from the Scottish Government to encourage teacher recruitment, Teaching Makes People, is no doubt going to be as successful as its 2016 predecessor, Inspiring Teachers. Last year’s programme saw a 19 per cent increase in applications for the postgraduate diploma in education – but we must question if this is enough to plug the hole in Scotland’s education services. With the number of full-time teachers having decreased by more than seven per cent in the last ten years, shouldn’t we be focusing our attention on keeping the teachers we already have in post in addition to recruiting?

I believe we need to be focusing on retaining our existing teaching force in addition to driving recruitment. This means looking at salaries, workload, work-life balance, and the stresses that teachers are subject to today. In recent years, Scottish teachers have suffered increased stress levels, with record numbers of teaching days being lost to illness and stress accounts for a significant portion of these days. If we want to retain our great teachers then we need to address these concerns.

Katherine Mathieson, CEO of British Science Association

Katherine Mathieson, CEO of British Science Association

With science-based subjects, teachers face unique challenges, such as keeping up to date with cutting-edge research, and sometimes finding themselves teaching outside of their specialism – such as biology teachers teaching physics or vice-versa. This can prove tricky, but also brings new opportunities. My advice for non-specialist teachers would be to look at what transferable skills they can bring to the classroom. Many primary school teachers don’t have specialist degrees, yet succeed in inspiring children through science.

One way teachers can do this is by looking at science as a fundamental part of culture and not just something for scientists. This is a challenge when we lack relevant and exciting role models within popular culture.

Teachers are incredibly powerful role models, I had an inspiring chemistry teacher, Mrs Clarkson, whom I saw as approachable, and she spoke to me on my level. Pupils can also often see science as something separate from the television they watch, but shows like The Great British Bake Off are actually filled with science, such as why you have to knead dough, and for many this is more likely to spark an interest than reading from a textbook.

This brings up the question of whether the specialist-based curriculum is fit for purpose. The demand for particular teacher specialisms comes from the number of students studying specialist subjects. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence is well-regarded for its interdisciplinary nature and I do believe that studying for 5 Highers is preferable to the 3 or 4 A levels done by young people south of the Border – there is an argument that the rest of the UK has something to learn from Scotland here.

However, even limiting young people to selecting five subjects seems narrow in comparison to the multi-dimensional lives they will have.

Broadening the curriculum out further would allow young people to keep their horizons open to the various possibilities within the workforce and opportunities within further study – and could even help attract more people into teaching.

Katherine Mathieson CEO of British Science Association