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SecEd: On Your Side

Election 2010: The teacher vote counts

AT THE start, the election run-up was all about personalities. Then the parties published their manifestos, and policies were to the fore. And then came the live television debates and the media spotlight returned to personalities. Indeed, after Round 1, the Lib Dems’ leader Nick Clegg

Dr Bernard Trafford Election editorial

was generally agreed to have won the charisma challenge. At the time of writing it’s too soon to predict whether the Lib Dems’ ratings surge will last, but the cautious nature of that obsessively controlled contest perhaps made Mr Clegg’s early triumph inevitable. Gordon Brown had the simultaneous advantage and

drawback of being the incumbent PM. He could model experience and gravitas – and be held to account for everything we dislike. David Cameron was perhaps further disadvantaged, caught

between the Scylla of being the heir apparent (so expected to shine) and the Charybdis of being young and surrounded by young (mostly) men with no experience of government. How glorious, then, to be Nick Clegg! No expectations

weighed on his even younger shoulders. He could enjoy himself and pour scorn on the two bigger, painfully predictable parties. A vote for him thus appears a bit radical, risque even, but fun: it has caught the public imagination. So Mr Clegg is currently attractive, but should that sway

the relatively small number of “floating voters” who change their vote from one election to another and effectively determine the next government? And how should teachers, strongly represented in that decisive group, cast their votes? I hope we teachers can take a bigger view than education

alone. Still, education is what occupies us, fascinates and infuriates us, and pays our wages. As with Mr Brown in the televised debate, Labour education policy is the given, what we’re used to. When electioneering began, Labour’s education chief Ed Balls suddenly discovered the wisdom of attaching a pupil premium to children from deprived homes: he was rather behind the Lib Dems. Fifty-one eminent headteachers wrote to the Guardian

to warn of Tory cuts and advise voters to stick with Labour, which has invested unprecedented sums in education. It has. But does unprecedented money – notwithstanding the slow-down in Building Schools for the (now rather more distant) Future and Balls’s offensively glib comments about the scope for “efficiency savings” in schools – outweigh unprecedented bullying of schools and teachers, naming and shaming, and a future of expanded complaints mechanisms, the ludicrous licence to teach, and the report card with its fatuous single grade? Perhaps we do need a change, then. But to what?

There’s a lot of daft stuff promised by the Conservatives: a different (different how?) kind of efficiency saving; parents encouraged to vote out headteachers (and chief constables); parent-run and Swedish-model schools, and no idea about dealing with the surplus places created. But despite those half-baked ideas, school leaders might

jump at the promised freedom from interference and a return (in effect) to grant-maintained status. But will they trust them? It was a Tory, Kenneth (Lord) Baker, who introduced the national curriculum, SATs and Ofsted. Given such baggage, an alternative to both is attractive.

But what do the Lib Dems offer? Little of substance has been offered on education, merely assertions that they would render Ofsted’s function more proportionate. So they, too, remain in thrall to politicians’ obsession with accountability. Little change offered there. Is that the choice? Labour money with control-freakery,

Conservative freedom with free-for-all? Lib Dems as key player in a hung parliament or even the new government? Is what we see what we’ll get after all? Perhaps the

televised debates are proving more revealing than the manifestos. One thing we can be sure of: the teacher vote will count. Use it wisely.


• Dr Bernard Trafford is head of The Royal Grammar School in Newcastle. SecEd’s guest election editorials continue next week. Contact editor Pete Henshaw on pete. or visit

Future-gazing: Dr Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry (right), makes his point during the science symposium discussions (main image)


A number of delegates at the National Science Symposium had conflicting views on the state of science education in England. Here we look at what some of them had to say on the proposed 14 to 19 Diploma in science and careers advice.

Professor Peter Main, director of education and science, Institute of Physics (on Diplomas):

“Students who have basic numeracy and literacy do need to have something that will

make them a valuable member of communities and also give them opportunities. To say that it could somehow be made equivalent to other qualifications which aim to provide people with the education to study science at a higher level and provide them with a career in science is nonsense.”

Lizzi Holman, specialist at the Confederation for British Industry (on careers advice):

“We need inspirational careers advice grounded in very good detailed information about

the steps and the necessary qualifications and the level of opportunities available after those choices. Young people need to be able to learn about different options and be able to take these up if they choose to do so.”

Bill Alexander, director of the curriculum and assessment division, AQA (on careers advice):

“The great challenge ahead is to ensure that young people take the most suitable qualification for their academic and professional

future if they want a career in science. Many are at risk of closing down their options too soon which is a real problem in view of how frequently career paths now change. It is also vital that employers and universities can rely upon a qualification to indicate a student’s ability and skills. Ofqual has said that science is a subject that is ‘high risk’ and those involved in science education must now take care to listen to the views of teachers, professors and industry professionals.”

The future of science

AN OVERLY-DEMANDING curriculum, poor facilities and inadequately educated support staff are placing the practical side of science lessons under threat, according to delegates at the National Symposium of Science. The event, hosted by the exam

board AQA in March, published its findings last week. It discussed a survey by the National Science Learning Centre which claims that 96 per cent of the 1,300 asked believe they “face barriers in carrying out practical work”. Many of the symposium

attendees, who included representatives from the Wellcome Trust, the Association of Science Education (ASE), and the Royal Society of Chemistry, said that although young people valued the experience of practical work, they did indeed face the difficulties outlined in the survey. Margaret Thorpe, director of science at Brune Park Community

Key members of the science community met in London earlier this year to discuss the future of science education. The findings were

published last week. Chris Parr takes us through the report

College in Hampshire, told delegates: “Children want to do practical work. I’ve been teaching for 33 years and I can lose a class if I say that we are not doing practical that lesson.” Other participants claimed that

the quality of practicals often varies, and it was felt that there could be some teachers who were “merely going through the motions” and some students who do not see the value of practicals. The cost involved in practicals was seen as a significant barrier,

and also the design of schools and the maintenance of practical areas. Practical staffing support was seen as vital, and delegates believed it was currently “significantly under- resourced”. Dr Richard Pike, chief executive

of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said that around 30 per cent of schools have very poorly functioning labs in terms of design and apparatus. Ms Thorpe also stressed the

importance of allocating more money to recruit better lab technicians. She said: “I think the quality of practicals that are carried out in the classroom are very dependent on the practical support you’ve got. The only organisation that has ever addressed the deficiency of technical support has been the ASE. “We don’t have incentives to get

good quality technicians. The pay is horrendously bad, but we need this support. The majority are not qualified in science and the local authorities do not put the money into this.” Most participants agreed that

health and safety issues were a frequently deployed excuse to avoid delivering practical work. Elsewhere, the symposium

discussed the range of science qualifications at key stage 4, with some attendees claiming that opportunities for further study

and certain career paths are being blighted by the routes students choose at this stage. The vast majority of teacher

delegates said they needed to offer a range of different qualifications – such as single, double and triple science, and BTECs – in order to cater for the needs of individual students. However, one educationalist

claimed that the range of courses on offer was confusing to candidates. David Perks, head of physics

at Graveney School in London, said: “There is a massive bleeding out of proper academic scientific qualifications into vocational qualifications because they are an easier route to a grade C.” Although many disagreed with

his rhetoric, all of the teachers present said that they felt under pressure to produce results that would benefit their school’s league table standing. However, there was strong

disagreement between those who felt it was unreasonable that everyone should be enabled to get C grades by switching to a BTEC, and those who felt the system should accommodate different learning needs. Some participants said that

a system that gave everyone the chance to succeed undermined the idea of measuring different students’ abilities. Mr Perks added: “Somewhere, somebody has to fail. If they can’t fail then what are we measuring?”


Further information

The symposium discussed a wide range of science issues. To download the full report, visit the news section at For more reaction from the event, see In Response, below.


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