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'Average' science education

Posted 05/12/2013 by sevans

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) latest international rankings for education – the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests – have been in the news this week. The Pisa tests are widely recognised as the most influential rankings in international education, based on tests taken by more than 500,000 15-year-old secondary school pupils, including 12,000 in the UK.

Apart from a lack of overall improvement, despite all the reviews, refocusing, restructuring of education, etc, there is potentially critical impact on the UK chemistry and chemical-related industries as a result of the UK slipping further down the league tables for science and maths. In 2012, out of 65 participating countries, the UK had slipped in science from 16th to 21st place, and now finds itself with other countries with similar performance ratings in science like Australia, Austria, Czech Republic, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Slovenia and Switzerland.

The UK’s performance in maths is slightly worse, with the UK classified as ‘average’ in 26th place.

As the chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), Dr David Brown commented: ‘The UK has some world-class industries in the chemical and process sector like oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, food and energy production, which are vital to our future economic prosperity. The success of these industries is under threat if our education system can’t produce enough talented people with high quality skills in maths and science.

In its report, the OECD illustrated the important role governments have in setting the right policy framework to improve educational performance. ‘The OECD is clear that “the quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals”’, said Brown. ‘Countries like Brazil, Japan and Poland, which are improving their performance, have all established education policies to improve the quality of their teaching staff. Specific policies to raise standards include making it harder to achieve a teaching licence and by offering incentives for teachers to engage in in-service teacher-training programmes. We need to look at what other countries are doing and make sure we understand what is needed to stop science and maths teaching from stagnating.

‘The first thing we need to do is make sure that every primary school should have a qualified science teacher, and secondary schools should have science teachers that are qualified to degree level in their fields. Only then can we hope to inspire more young people to achieve higher standards and benefit industries reliant on high quality skills in maths and science.’

But a good basic science education is only part of the story in ensuring that the chemical sector attracts and keeps the high quality young talent that is needed to maintain competitiveness. The industry is not as labour-intensive as other manufacturing sectors so it is essential that when young people are prepared to join the industry, they are encouraged to stay. 

In France, the chemical major Solvay has committed itself from 2013 to 2015:

  • to increase the number of young hires on permanent contracts: one out of two new employees will be younger than 26 years
  • to significantly raise the number of work-study contracts (+25%)
  • to hire one young person in five at the end of their work-study contracts
  • to retain seniors: at least 13% of the workforce will be 57 years and older
  • to limit the use of temporary staff to 1% of employees
  • to accept all skill assessment requests from employees older than 45 in line with an employee's individual training entitlement.

As Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, Solvay’s ceo expressed it recently: ‘The chemical profession is complex and requires high-level skills. For instance, it takes two to four years of training to be a qualified operator at one of our industrial sites. With this generation contract, we are showing our commitment to employ young people, to transmit our quality knowledge and skills and to offer them a rich and diversified career. At the same time, we commit to retain and motivate our "seniors" who represent one-third of our staff and whose experience is absolutely essential to the company.’

What do you think the UK’s chemical sector and government should be doing to ensure that it continues to maintain a world-class labour-force?

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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