Dáil debates

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

3:00 pm

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Question 95: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the number of recommendations outstanding for implementation from the task force on the physical sciences; the reason same have not been prioritised; the timescale for the implementation of these recommendations; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34442/06]

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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As the Deputy will be aware, the Government has prioritised improvements in science education at all levels, from primary school science to advanced fourth level research. Progress has been made in a wide range of areas in recent years. A new science curriculum has been introduced at primary level supported by a resource grant in December 2004 of €1,000 per school plus €10 per pupil. A revised, much more practically focused syllabus in junior certificate science was introduced in 2003 and examined for the first time in June 2006. Its introduction was supported by €16 million in grants to schools. Revised syllabi in leaving certificate physics, chemistry and biology have also been introduced in the past five years and supported by comprehensive in-service programmes for teachers. Additional equipment grants have been provided for schools, while laboratories continue to be refurbished as part of the ongoing schools building programme.

The Government has also provided €4 million for the discover science and engineering awareness programme to ensure a co-ordinated approach to promoting interest in science. It is engaged in a range of innovative activities, not only to improve interest in science among school children and the public but also to encourage young people to view science as a viable career option.

With regard to scientific research, Deputies will be aware that investment in the programme of research in third level institutions, PRTLI, continues apace. Between this programme and the various grants to the research councils and other sources, €102.5 million was invested in research in third level institutions in 2005 under my Department's Vote.

The overall level of Government expenditure across all Departments on science, technology and innovation amounted to €658 million in 2005. With all the improvements that have been made in the area of science education in recent years, progress has been made on implementing 25 of the 34 proposals in the task force on the physical sciences which relate to the education sector.

As I have explained on previous occasions, one of the recommendations of the task force about which I am not convinced is that on laboratory assistants. As the Deputy will be aware, laboratory technicians have not been a universal feature of support for second level science teaching in other countries. There is no doubt that provision of technicians in this area would lead to demands for similar assistance across other areas of the curriculum where there is a strong practical component. While I remain to be convinced of the necessity for technicians, I will, nonetheless, keep the position under review.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

As the Deputy will be aware, the strategy for science, technology and innovation sets out a range of measures to further strengthen science teaching and learning and improve the uptake of senior cycle physics and chemistry. These include ensuring the project-based, hands-on investigative approach in place at junior cycle is extended to senior cycle, the appropriate type of assessment is used and emphasis is placed on the interdisciplinary nature of science in society.

Other aspects of the plan include reviewing the implementation of the primary science curriculum to ensure its effectiveness in stimulating interest and awareness in science at a very young age, strengthening teacher training in this area, reforming maths and leaving certificate physics and chemistry curricula, promoting science initiatives in transition year and providing information and brochures on science opportunities and careers, linking effectively with school guidance services. Taken together, the comprehensive set of measures provided for in the SSTI will build on the improvements made in recent years and ensure even greater support for science education.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Is the Minister's primary concern that she may come under pressure from other subjects or is it, as it should be, the need to ensure a high uptake in science subjects? While I welcome investment in third and fourth level, to make this investment worthwhile we must also ensure the system functions correctly at primary and secondary level.

The Minister indicated she will keep the position under constant review. Is she prepared to make any commitments on laboratory technicians? Is she aware that certain schools have still not implemented the practical element of the junior certificate science syllabus because some of them do not have proper facilities, while others do not have sufficient time to complete the onerous task of setting up experiments? Does the Minister have plans to ensure all students take science to junior certificate level? Will she ensure all second level schools can offer the full complement of science subjects to leaving certificate level, which is not currently the position?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I am not prepared to give a commitment on laboratory technicians. It is important to continue to invest in the curriculum, syllabus and science laboratories and in supporting and training teachers. Next spring, I expect to receive from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment proposals on assessment at senior level and other matters.

Changes to the primary school curriculum have been exciting and changes in the junior certificate science examination have been a major success.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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They are not being taught in all schools.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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As part of the summer works scheme last year and this year, the Department invested significant amounts in developing and expanding science laboratories. With the exception of schools that formed part of larger building projects, all schools that applied for funding to upgrade their laboratories received grants. I look forward to finding out which schools applied for funding for this year.

I have no intention of making science compulsory at junior certificate level because 86% of students already take science at junior certificate on a voluntary basis. This is an encouraging figure. Given that numbers are increasing because students want to study science, it is not necessary to introduce compulsion.

As the Deputy will be aware, schools have absolute discretion regarding the subjects they offer at leaving certificate level and which teachers they employ. There is one teacher at second level for every 13 students. It is a matter for schools at local level to determine how they want to offer science subjects.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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The Minister is putting her head in the sand. Some schools cannot offer all science subjects to leaving certificate level because of the number of teachers available to them. I am sure the Minister is sincere in wishing to see an improvement in the development of science, and resources are being allocated to ensure that. However, if students wish to take the subject but it is not available due to timetable problems, that must be addressed. The ultimate responsibility for addressing it lies with the Minister in terms of ensuring that the schools are adequately resourced and can offer the full complement of science subjects. If students cannot study science at second level, they certainly cannot attempt to catch up at third level.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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There is no reason that schools cannot offer science subjects. The fact that 86% of students are studying science at junior certificate level should encourage many more to study it to leaving certificate level. There is a teacher in every second level school for every 13 students and it is up to the local schools to decide, based on the demands of their students and the ability of their teachers, what subjects they will offer. At present, we are anxious to increase the number of students who are studying science subjects at leaving certificate level. A total of 14.4% are taking physics this year while 13.9% are taking chemistry. We aim to increase that to 20% through the science strategy. However, the take-up of biology at leaving certificate level is still quite high at 48.8%. The difficulty, however, is that even those who do well are not continuing the subjects at third level. That is where guidance is most important. I hope the fact that the Government is investing so heavily in the knowledge economy and in the future of industry in that sector will encourage students to do so.