The Times Gets It Slightly Wrong About Science Education

[BPSDB]Sometimes I think that the Press and I live in parallel universes. What else can explain the fact that they publish stuff as news that I know to be false? They even claim that stuff I do on a regular basis as part of my job as a school lab technician never actually happens.

Take this, the claim that interesting science experiments no longer happen in school laboratories because of misplaced health and safety fears:-

“The fear of burns, spillages and volatile reactions means that even mundane procedures such as distillation are often viewed online rather than performed in the laboratory. Professor John Holman, the Government’s chief adviser on science in schools, and Professor David Phillips, incoming president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, told The Times that it was vital for pupils to learn how to handle hazardous substances and to experiment.

The first sentence in the above paragraph is a fabrication. Distillation is done in the lab not viewed online at the school where I work and I have never heard of any school that does things differently. The Times does not place it in quotes which suggests that no-one other than the writer has used those exact words but note how it is immediately followed by naming Professor John Holman and Professor David Phillips and so implying it is they who have said it. Note to self. Find contact details for the Professors and ask them what they actually said.

Professor Holman, who is also director of the National Science Learning Centre, said trainee teachers spent too little time preparing exciting practicals. “There is much less practical work now because of a huge focus on exams,” he said. “Schools are so aware of health and safety — they will say, ‘That’s too dangerous’.

My own experience is that there is not less practical work. However I am aware that a sample size of 1 does not tell a great deal about the state of science education in the country as a whole. It is a pity Professor Holman does not supply any evidence at all for his assertion. And this from the Director of the National Science Learning Centre and the Government Chief Advisor on Science in Schools too. The statement that “schools are so aware of health and safety — they will say, ‘That’s too dangerous.'”, is, I am afraid to say, excrement of the male bovine. First, I do not see the problem with being aware of health and safety issues. Second, schools will rarely, if ever, say “that’s too dangerous” – they will say “Have you done a risk assessment and have you provided adequate personal protective equipment?”

The article then gives us some experiments the writer thinks are going to disappear:-

“Experiments at risk

Ammonium dichromate volcano Make a pile of ammonium dichromate and set the tip alight using a magnesium fuse. The result is a tiny volcano, complete with ash, steam and nitrogen gas

The thermite reaction Mix metal powder with metal-oxide to create thermite and set it alight. The mix will burn at an exceptionally high temperature

Potassium in water The classic school experiment. Drop potassium into water and it reacts violently, making hydrogen, which then ignites in a small fireball”

I’ve never set up the first of the above three but the other two are regulars in our department. I have never had any indications from CLEAPSS (the school science safety advisory service) that there is any suggestion that these experiments be banned.

Teachers still devise their own demonstrations too. Our head of chemistry has come up with an excellent one that presumably does not happen in the Times‘s parallel universe. A small candle is placed in a copper calorimeter and heated over a bunsen burner. The wax melts and starts burning. You then tape a small beaker to the end of a metre rule, half fill it with water then, holding the other end of the metre rule, tip the water into the burning wax. The result is a jet of flame that reaches the ceiling. An excelent demonstration as to why trying to put out chip-pan fires with water is a really bad idea. Figuring out what has happened is a good excercise for the students, too.

I left a comment on the Times article on Tuesday evening saying briefly that school science still includes interesting experiments and perhaps they should talk to people who work in science education before they publish stories such as this. Strangely, it has not yet appeared. They have allowed plenty of comments slagging off Labour/Liberals/bureaucrats/socialists however and saying how terrible excessive regulation is.

Clearly, this excessive regulation of school science is a figment of the Murdoch Empire’s imagination but it fits into the meme of “Health & Safety gone mad” which is so beloved by the Tories. By convincing the electorate that health and safety regulations are far more restrictive than is actually the case and they will be more accepting in cuts in real safety legislation on the grounds of “making a bonfire of red tape” or “allowing Britain to be competitive”. Light touch regulation of the finance sector for competitive reasons used to be a mantra too. Need I remind you how well that turned out?


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5 Responses to “The Times Gets It Slightly Wrong About Science Education”

  1. James Says:

    I completely agree-all the above practicals are regularly carried out at our school. Setting off gas bubbles in your own hands always seems to get a good reaction too. It was great to see the CLEAPSS reaction: swift and to the point as usual

  2. Rick Says:

    I’ve just started my training to be a science teacher. Our first practical lesson was a demonstration of how to do ‘dangerous’ experiments, that our tutor believes some are reluctant to carry out: Group I metals in water, igniting a balloon of hydrogen and burning phosphorus in oxygen.

    The one thing we took away from the lesson was that pretty much nothing (other than benzine and gunpowder) is banned. If it’s CLEAPPS you can do it, follow their guidelines and it’ll be safe and no-one gets sued if it does happen to go wrong.

    I suspect what is the case, is that with a shortage of science teachers less experienced people might be more reluctant to blow things up. Personally, I’ll be sprinkling phosphorus and potassium around the lab with wild abandon.

  3. Michael Grayer Says:

    Ok, so this is anecdotal evidence, but anyway. It’s a good story. A friend of mine who’s a physics teacher set up a demonstration of the left-hand rule by building a rail-gun on the school roof using some car batteries, a load of coils of wire and some lengths of metal piping. Apparently he had to bolt it down so that it permanently pointed towards the playing field, so the kids couldn’t go up at lunch time, turn it round and fire it over the houses, but still, no “health and safety gone mad” whatsoever.

  4. Editor Says:

    I train teachers to deal with H&S issues. Too many teachers don’t do practicals, take trips, run workshops because they have been forced to believe that they cannot do things ‘cos of H&S. They have usually been ill informed and mislead. H&S is there to enable things to happen safely not restrict.
    One school I know of informed the Head of Science that they could not do any experiments with naked flames or gave off gasses: reason new fire detection system and H&S! Well I rolled around laughing! Turned out to be the ignorant estates manager who was scared of H&S (which he did not understand) had a system installed against the advice of the professionals!

  5. Neuroskeptic Says:

    My favourite dangerous experiment is the classic NI3 trick. Endless fun. And indelible purple stains.

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