Business 'suffering' from school scientist dearth

17-08-2006

Faults within Britain's education system mean that the nation is producing too few scientists, with employers increasingly looking abroad to recruit staff, a leading business group has warned.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) claims that a "stripped-down" science curriculum and a lack of specialist science teachers in British schools means that thousands of potential scientists are failing to take up the discipline.

The lobby group warns that the UK's "world-class science base" is subsequently being "eroded", at a time when emerging international competitors such as China, India, Brazil and countries from eastern Europe are starting to produce thousands of scientists and engineers each year to boost the development of their economies.

The CBI said that part of the problem stemmed from the fact that most pupils now study for a combined science double GCSE, rather than taking biology, chemistry and physics as three separate scientific disciplines.

Blaming the trend on a lack of choice and specialist science teachers, the employers' organisation warned that teenagers were being left "ill-equipped" for A-level courses and said that many university lecturers had to offer science undergraduates remedial courses to compensate for their lack of basic knowledge.

Richard Lambert, director general of the CBI, stressed that UK employers were "increasingly worried" about the decline in the number of students studying physics and maths at A-level and were having to look overseas for graduates to meet the demands of their businesses.

The CBI said the number of pupils studying physics at A-level had fallen by 56 per cent in 20 years, while there had been a 37 per cent drop in the number of those studying A-level chemistry.

Meanwhile the number of graduates leaving university with a degree in physics, engineering or technology has reportedly fallen by a third over the last decade, with just 32,000 undergraduates qualifying in the disciplines last year.

The CBI claims that the fall in the number of suitably qualified scientists in Britain comes at a time of rising demand for such workers, with the UK set to need about 2.4 million new chemists, physicists, engineers, and laboratory technicians by 2014.

Mr Lambert warned that the UK risked being "knocked off its perch as a world-leader in science, engineering and technology".

"This is not a criticism of young people - they work hard to achieve the best possible grades in the system provided," said Mr Lambert.

"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," he added.

Responding to the CBI's report, schools minister Jim Knight said that increasing the number of British scientists was a "priority" for the government, emphasising that spending on physics and chemistry teaching in schools had increased since 1997.

"We have been working across government with employers, schools and experts in the field to both improve the quality of science teaching and make science a more attractive option," said Mr Knight.

"It is this joint working that will ensure we deliver the scientists of the future."


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