Last Monday the Royal Society hosted a debate on the Royal Society’s Vision for science and mathematics education to coincide with the Labour Party Conference.

Panel chair was Maggie Philbin (centre of photo), TeenTech CEO and presenter of Tomorrow’s World and Bang Goes the Theory.

Maggie Philbin introducing Vision event

(l-r) Kevin Brennan MP Shadow Minister for Education, Sir Martin Taylor (Chair of Vision Committee), David Drury (Campus Chancellor at EDF Energy), Maggie Philbin, Max Hyde (President of the National Union of Teachers and a science and maths teacher), Surita Lawes (Head of Science and Maths at Loreto College, Manchester) and Aondoyima Ioratim-Uba (A-level student and aspiring theoretical physicist).

The audience hailed from across UK science and education communities including Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, and colleagues from the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Campaign for Science and Engineering, as well as the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications.

Five comments are still ringing in my head:

1. ‘We complain education is a political football, and some argue this is the price we pay for democracy’

If education policy was set in stone and not open for debate, we might have a stable education system but we would compromise our democracy. Kevin Brennan MP suggested the solution is developing cross-party consensus on education policy. Securing consensus can give a policy political longevity, beyond the lifetime of a government.

2. ‘The Vision report is not just a strategy for education but part of the business plan for UK Plc’

Dave Drury, EDF Campus Chancellor, saw the Royal Society’s Vision for science and mathematics education as part of our national business plan, developing the skilled people who can go on to fill the skilled jobs that UK business needs.

3. ‘Sticks and bones may break me, but words shape lives’

Max Hyde, President of the National Union of Teachers and a teacher herself made it clear that the way those in power speak about teachers shape public perception. Often mistaken for an English teacher (she says it’s all the arm waving), Max revealed punitive language has crept into public discourse when talking about teachers. For example, ‘driving up standards’, ‘snap inspections’. Yet Vision’s evidence base found a culture of respect for teachers goes hand in hand with good learning. And changing attitudes, which the Vision promotes, can be a cheap solution for government.

4. ‘STEM education is a springboard, not a pipeline’

A member of the audience confessed he did a chemistry degree and is now a tax accountant. The panel reacted positively. Maggie Philbin, who as CEO of Teentech works with teenagers all over the UK, explained that what young people want is freedom. A ‘pipeline’ can be an off-putting idea, Maggie said, not everyone wants to fit inside a pipe, and a more fitting description of STEM is a springboard into all walks of life. Sir Martin Taylor, who led the Vision report, said that the preoccupation with a STEM ‘pipeline’* distracts from seeing the value of people who are able to think like a scientist in other sectors.

5. ‘Some of the best science in school is extracurricular’

Amidst the support for Vision, it shocked me that most school science is moving away from real-world science. Aondoyima, our student speaker, gave an uplifting speech on his experiences in science. So far he’s enjoyed a string theory lecture and learning to program through a Nuffield placement at AMEC. But his teacher Surita pointed out these have had to fit around the usual school day. With practical work becoming less standard in science A Level, it’s hard for someone interested in science to get a real taste of it at school.

This brought me back to the here and now. Our panellists agreed that the Vision report is full of good ideas. But to make Vision a reality, we need support from on-the-ground people like Surita and Dave Drury. As a friend who works for the House of Commons reminded me, good ideas are not enough to get good results, we also need to implement them and do it well.

So the question is – what steps can everyone take to make a real difference to UK education? Comments welcome.

Vision at Manchester Town Hall, 22 September 2014

Vision at Manchester Town Hall, 22 September 2014

*We also held an event on research innovation policy, see Eleanor Beal’s blog post.