Half a century of chemistry education: interview with Sir David Harrison

Educationalist Sir David Harrison, SCI member and former chairman of the Awards Committee, talks about his perception of science in education, the media and today’s quality of teaching.

Educated at Cambridge, Sir David has been in education for over 50 years. He is currently Director of the Salters’ Institute of Industrial Chemistry, which is involved in the development of science curricula in schools.

You must have had a very rigorous education. Do you believe we teach students with the same rigour today?
Yes I do – however, it is not possible to compare directly with 50 years ago. Then, only one in 20 went to university: it is nearly one in two today. The need for able chemistry students to go into medicine or enter industry ensures that good numbers do follow through.

Are students in the UK equipped to compete at a global level?
Yes, they have to be. The days are long gone when those leaving university could contemplate a job for life. Today’s students need to be flexible, willing to travel and change jobs quite often. They therefore not only need academic skills, but also need the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. For those who can bring these two elements together, the opportunities remain good.

In your opinion, is education in chemistry and the sciences accessible to all?
Without a doubt the quality of teaching and the level of expectation at any given school play a large part in determining whether a child succeeds or not, although an individual’s ability is of course crucial.

Another challenge is the way science is portrayed in the media, that somehow it is for ‘geeks’. Many people have no problem confessing to how bad they are at maths and science, but very few would admit to the same degree of ignorance about literature or music.

We seem to be witnessing a general decline in the public appreciation of science – basic knowledge that everyone in society should possess. This problem remains on the national agenda.

What must be stressed is that teachers make the difference and therefore the search continues for new and realistic ways of encouraging bright people into the teaching of maths and science. On a positive note, the latest data on national examinations show that science subjects are holding up at ‘A’ level.

When did you become an SCI member and why?
I became a member in 1994, which was late in my career - but perhaps better late than never. I joined because SCI provides a good meeting ground for academics and industrialists. I became chairman of the Awards Committee, which I thoroughly enjoyed – committees that have funds to give away are usually fun to participate in. Do you think the way SCI operates is relevant today – particularly for younger potential members?

Young people face great pressures because the world of work changes so quickly. We can and should encourage young people to join SCI by giving them more responsibility and opportunities to become involved. We should also take the time to listen and understand what matters to them.

Have you ever regretted your choice of career in life – is there any other area you would have liked to go into?
Not at all, I have been very privileged because opportunities have presented themselves throughout my career, often through the kind interest of my seniors. Very many years ago I thought a career in the diplomatic service might be fun, but my science was better than my languages.

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