Kitemark for science and maths education

CaSE Director Imran Khan has written in the ‘Times Educational Supplement’ on the need for a kitemark in the teaching of science and maths education. We’ve re-published it below.

For a full summary of CaSE’s work on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education see here.

“IN BRITAIN we’re okay at teaching science and maths. Not bad, but certainly not great. This should worry you. Our school-leavers deserve and need to understand the modern world around them, and as a nation we need to be able to compete in a global high-skills economy.

If this is to change, our science establishment should take it upon itself to do even more to promote and celebrate best practice in education.

Challenges Ahead

Despite the UK’s reputation as a beacon of excellence, with only the US possessing a longer list of Nobel laureates or Fields medallists, we really are mediocre at educating the next generation. The Programme for International Student Assessment’s (Pisa) 2009 survey of 65 nations ranked us 28th for maths and 16th for science – behind countries such as Estonia, Poland and Slovenia. A recent comparison of 24 advanced economies showed that England, Wales and Northern Ireland were the only ones in which fewer than one-fifth of students studied maths post-16.

To give the sector its due, we have seen some improvements. The number of pupils obtaining good GCSEs and A levels in science has risen, as has the number of those going on to study science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) at degree level. But these improvements may be more fragile than many would like to admit.

Independent schools account for just 13 per cent of all A levels taken, but supply only slightly less than a fifth of chemistry, maths and physics A levels sat, and well over a quarter of further maths A levels.

Comprehensive school pupils, by contrast, are over-represented in arts and humanities subjects. It is a similar story at GCSE level, but one of the recent bright spots has been a rise in state-sector pupils studying “triple science” (biology, chemistry and physics as separate GCSEs). This is good: we know that not only does taking triple science correlate with a pupil’s likelihood of further study in STEM, but that this effect is more pronounced among less privileged pupils.

Sustained effort from the teaching and science sectors has been a big part of that success. Another factor was the rise of the science and maths specialist schools, whereby ring-fenced funding for teaching these subjects was unlocked in return for meeting specific targets in science or maths. The specialist school model is not without its detractors, but the Kitemarking principle of rewarding and recognising good practice is one with proven success.

It has been used in everything from electrical safety to employment standards, and we have seen it give schools a real incentive to give their pupils an advantage in pursuing further science and maths training. You might therefore expect that we would be reinforcing this incentive. Instead, the ring-fenced funding for specialisms has been removed.

Getting the best teachers

The English Baccalaureate, which requires maths and two sciences, should help ensure minimum standards. New teacher-training bursaries for top science and maths graduates, brought in to replace the now-scrapped “golden hellos”, are intended to boost the supply of specialist teachers. All this is valuable, but as well as encouraging supply, we need to consider demand.

The financial climate for schools is tough, and the costs of teaching subjects such as physics and chemistry aren’t exactly among the lowest. Also, despite recommendations by the Science Community Representing Education (SCORE), we still have no clear definition or map of specialist teaching provision, so it is hard to see how far we have to go.

It’s not all bad news, of course. We have passionate teachers and excellent schools pushing for the best possible education for pupils. By recognising and promoting that excellence, the science and engineering sector could help to encourage more of it.

A little respect

The hardest thing for any Kitemarking scheme, new or old, is having a respected brand. Why should employers or governing bodies aspire to a Kitemark’s arbitrary standard? Where is the authority for that standard coming from? Well, the UK just happens to be blessed with globally exalted institutions such as our National Academies as learned societies, along with charities such as the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby foundation which have a fantastic record of funding education interventions.

The sector already does much to support education, not least in working with government to set curriculum standards and organising fantastic events like the Big Bang Fair, and via education policy partnerships such as SCORE and Education for Engineering (E4E).

However, we could go further. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, the Royal Society or Royal Academy of Engineering using their brands to promote a new Kitemark. This could be awarded to schools that had an appropriate roster of specialist teachers and enrichment programmes, offered triple science to all pupils and promoted professional development to all staff. There would be no need to reinvent the wheel. Yes, it would be harder in practice than in theory, but if it raised aspirations in a handful of schools, we would have succeeded in improving science and maths education for thousands of pupils.

From the heights of Victorian engineering to the complexity of today’s bioscience revolution, the history of British science and engineering is characterised by ‘okay’ never being good enough. It’s time we made sure the same was true of the support we provide to the next generation.


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  1. Posted 01/05/2012 at 14:16 | Permalink

    Interesting post Imran and I wonder how the RS and RAEng will respond to it. I think the term ‘Kitemark’ is a bit out of fashion in an age of spawning social media with stars, trending, ‘likes’, ‘favourites’, ‘recommended’ everywhere. Who ultimately decides on the required standard and how do they justify their criteria to others? These are all questions that need to be answered first.

  2. Posted 01/05/2012 at 14:42 | Permalink

    I’m just trying to work out why I’m so viscerally opposed to this idea. Perhaps it’s the association with ‘electrical safety’ and ‘employment standards'; both of which are about adherence to specific, relatively routine, processes. I have visions of robot schools and teachers ticking boxes (ah, that does bring back memories…)

    Education is just too complex, contested (politically and educationally) and cultural to make anything like this work in practice. And do we really want our Academies and major scientific charities, august though they are, to back or sit in judgement over this? Are they qualified to do that? In the UK, the solution to our challenges is best met by the traditional messy, pragmatic UK approach and by an emphasis on all of us outside the school and college sector working collectively to support the professional development, professional autonomy, and professional responsibility of teachers and school leaders. We are increasingly doing that, through e.g. the Science Leaning Centres, partnerships like the Big Bang, and all the enrichment activities and resources that the world outside the classroom can and should offer.

    I can’t see how a kitemark could be produced that would carry widespread support and credibility, but I’d be very interested to hear if anyone’s planning it.

  3. Posted 01/05/2012 at 19:00 | Permalink

    Of course, there is already a primary school science “quality mark” (PSQM) which aims to raise the profile of science in our primary schools at a time when some schools see the abolition of science SATs as an opportunity to reduce the amount of time spent teaching the subject. It offers three standards (bronze, silver and gold … and not just in the this Olympics year) for all primary schools to aspire to achieving. I regularly meet teachers at the National Science Learning Centre who have been involved in this process, and tell me that, although hard work, they have found it useful CPD; recognition for their school’s efforts and achievements in the teaching and learning of science; and has given them a direction for continued improvement.

  4. Posted 02/05/2012 at 12:02 | Permalink

    An interesting idea, certainly – and you could argue that the specialist schools classification was one way to approach this. Sadly one which hasn’t lasted…

    I would point out that recognising excellence at a departmental level is one thing (and not always easy, as Ofsted has shown, or uncontroversial) but that individual teachers deserve the credit too. You can have great teachers in a mediocre department, or middling teachers in a department that appears to tick all the boxes. I’m not a member of the scheme, but it’s worth noting that the ASE is already involved with awarding Chartered Science Teacher status (CSciTeach) to those professional who demonstrate excellent practice. Advanced Skills Teachers, or the government’s new ideas of ‘senior’ or ‘master’ teachers will presumably be another way to show some of the same skills. The issue, as always, will be for those of us who are involved with CPD, engage with research, maintain good glassroom practice and do the best for our students to attain these standards without a mind-numbing amount of paperwork.

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  • By Geeky reads | The Geek Manifesto on 01/05/2012 at 19:45

    […] Khan, director of The Campaign for Science and Engineering, on the need for a “Kitemark” scheme to reward and recommend best practice in science and maths […]

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