Policy Lunchbox: The Royal Society Vision report – the next steps

Last summer the Royal Society published its Vision for science and mathematics education, setting out the Society’s view as to how to secure a world-class education system, especially with regard to science and maths, over the course of the next twenty years. The product of three years of research, consultation, stakeholder engagement and careful drafting, the report outlines a number of concise, attributable recommendations to achieve a step change in science and maths education in the UK. But now the dust has settled, how will the Royal Society ensure that these recommendations are adopted? How do you start to put a comprehensive twenty-year vision into practice?

These were the questions on the table at the first Policy Lunchbox of 2015, which welcomed Dr Rosalind Mist, the Royal Society’s Head of Education Policy, to Charles Darwin House. As Dr Mist explained, the Vision report represents something of a departure for the Society, whose policy work is usually based on synthesising and assessing the available evidence. In this case however, the emphasis was on thinking forward – planning for the future based on “imagination or wisdom” – a challenging task that the project committee, chaired by Royal Society Fellow Sir Martin Taylor and including scientists, teachers and politicians, wrestled with over the course of the production of the report. Of particular value was the programme of stakeholder engagement that was initiated: ensuring that the final report met the needs of its core audiences.

The Vision offers six key recommendations: that all young people should study maths and science up to the age of eighteen; that curriculum change has to be gradual – a matter of evolution not revolution; that there is a strong supply of science and maths teachers; that young people see where science and maths can take them; that performance measures value good teaching; and that education policy and practice are evidence-informed. Dr Mist acknowledged that the Royal Society’s proposal is not necessarily radical, and many of the ideas contained within in it are not new, but that the Vision represents the first time that these recommendations have been brought together under a coherent narrative for the future of science and maths education.

Where now? Prioritisation and building consensus

So where does one start with implementing a twenty-year vision? That is the Royal Society’s current task – creating a roadmap for achieving the vision, reviewing current activities, and identifying priorities based on the Society’s strengths. According to Dr Mist, the first priority is to build consensus amongst politicians, teachers, parents and industry on the need for stability in the curriculum, with changes based on gradual evolution, not revolution. The Vision report is deliberately based on a twenty-year timeframe, recognising the negative impacts that constant churn and direct political influence on curriculum has on schools and teaching. After a five-year period that has seen dramatic change (and with the potential for more in the pipeline) – yet little evaluation of the impact of these changes – gaining cross-party support for a stable curriculum is a key focus for the Society ahead of the general election.

Further priorities over the next few years will include extending the Society’s thinking as to how curricula could be developed independently of direct political control, and how the movement towards a baccalaureate system whereby all students study science and maths until the age of eighteen would work in practice. The Royal Society will also work with the research community to better connect research with policy and practice, with a focus on the research infrastructure required to enable this to happen effectively. Further development of inspirational science and maths teaching (a deliberate change in emphasis from teachers) will aim to ensure that teachers are embraced by the science community, with the Society also supporting calls for the establishment of a professional College of Teaching.

As Policy Lunchbox attendees made clear, concerns about the downgrading of science practicals, the sheer volume of curriculum changes and their concomitant consultations, and workload pressures on teachers all present immediate challenges to science and maths education. But Rosalind Mist was clear that the Royal Society is committed to the twenty-year time-frame laid out in the report; many of the recommendations of the Vision represent a profound cultural shift in how the UK should approach science and mathematics education. These changes will not be achieved overnight, but with gradual evolution based on sound evidence, the Royal Society hopes to secure a future system of science and maths education that can “enable people to make informed choices, empower them to shape scientific and technological developments, and equip them to work in an advanced economy.”

Policy Lunchbox is a joint initiative between the Biochemical Society, the British Ecological Society, the Society of Biology, Society of Experimental Biology, and the Society for General Microbiology. Throughout the year, a series of lunchtime events are held which bring together guest speakers with those who work in science policy.

Find out more about Policy Lunchbox and upcoming events