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Judging by results

Posted 13/08/2013 by cgodfrey

For parents, students and teachers across the UK, the nail-biting is almost over as this year’s A-level and GCSE results are finally about to be revealed. But while the good news is that more students are now opting to study science and maths than a decade ago – a symptom perhaps of the recession – there are warnings that future sixth formers may be at risk from an impending shortage of specialist science and maths teachers.

Research by John Howson, of Oxford Brooks University and DataforEducation, has found that 30% of places for PGCE courses for maths due to start in September 2013 are unfilled. About 100,000 pupils could potentially miss out on specialist maths teachers, the researchers found, while a similar situation is true for science.

Recruitment figures for PGCE courses show the number enrolled for PGCE courses had reduced by 709, physics by 386, design technology by 350 – and chemistry by 345, according to figures cited by The Daily Telegraph.

The news comes on the back of a White Paper in July 2013 about the future of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education, setting out recommendations for actions to accelerate improvements begun in 2004 credited with reversing a decline in the number of students opting to study STEM subjects. A report by the Royal Academy of Engineering concludes that 100,000 STEM graduates are needed simply to maintain the status quo. In the UK, 22% of all new degrees are awarded in STEM subjects – compared with 41% in China, which awards 2.6m engineering degrees/year.

Also making headlines this week, meanwhile, are reports of a worrying increase in the use of methylphenidate drugs to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Abuse of the drugs – also known as ‘smart drugs’ in the belief they may improve concentration, memory and cognitive performance – may be partly behind a 50% rise in the use of the drugs in the past six years. A report by the Care Quality Commission found that NHS prescriptions for such drugs, including Ritalin, increased from 420,000 in 2007 to 657,000 in 2012, the BBC News reports.

As experts cited in the article in the May 2013 issue of C&I pointed out, evidence for the benefits of drugs on cognitive performance is not clear-cut and nor is there much information on their potential harms.  Such advice, however, is unlikely to be heeded.  As parents and students know all too well, the pressure to boost performance and grades is intense and anything that might help is hard to ignore.

But while today’s students have to struggle with their revision unaided, other experts cited in the C&I article are more optimistic. Advances in drug design, gene therapy and other technologies will make ‘radical forms of cognitive and effective enhancement commonplace within the next two decades,’ they are reported as writing.

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy Editor

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