Elizabeth Truss speaks to the International Student Science Fair
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Elizabeth Truss, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education, speaks to the International Student Science Fair.
Thank you very much for that kind introduction, and for inviting me to join you at the International Student Science Fair. It’s a pleasure to be here at the start of the fair - and I hope you all have an enjoyable and productive few days.
A world transformed by technology
Scientific advances have changed and are changing our offices, our factories, our homes, schools and streets.
The smartphone in your pocket contains more advanced technology than Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin used to reach the Moon - and NASA is already planning the first manned mission to Mars.
And while mankind is exploring ever further out into the galaxy, we’re also travelling ever deeper into our own cells. New computer models can map the geography of our minds. Microscopic nanorobots can swim through our veins.
Sophisticated interfaces between mind and machine can now use the power of thought to control the world around us. Science fiction is turning into science fact.
As the 21st century marches on, the importance of science in every sphere of life will only grow. Automotive companies like Mercedes now make more from software than they do from building cars.
From music to manufacturing, food science to fashion, every industry in our economy is being transformed by technology - and new, cutting edge sectors like bio-informatics and digital fabrication are springing up every day.
As the future comes hurtling towards us, the most important resource any country can boast is not physical, nor technological - but human.
Every leap forward, every flash of insight, relies not on infrastructure, capital or regulatory regimes - important as they are.
But on people. On their brains, their knowledge and their determination to succeed.
On the schoolchildren and students of today - the innovators of tomorrow.
We don’t know yet precisely what skills will be needed in the future.
But as technology transforms the working world - and jobs polarise between the low-skilled and the very high-skilled, highly-educated - we know that the value of high-level skills is growing.
The 21st century will need people who are equally comfortable manipulating numbers, words and lines of computer code; who have the skills and the knowledge to understand both foreign languages and mathematical equations. Rounded individuals who can analyse and think logically, who have mastered both arts and sciences.
Never mind Bitcoin, education is the currency of the future.
International evidence has proved that countries with successful education systems grow more quickly.
The correlation between student test scores and GDP growth rates has doubled between 1960 and 2000.
If every country in the OECD improved their education scores by 25 points over the next 20 years, the world economy would grow by around 115 trillion dollars. To set that in perspective - Poland recently improved by 29 points in reading in just 6 years, between 2000 and 2006.
For the UK, that would mean a boost of 20% to our GDP growth rate - enough to wipe out the effects of the 2008 recession.
Preparing young people for the 21st century
As the world’s rising nations become richer, more successful, better educated and better prepared for the future, every student in the world will be competing in a global race for jobs, opportunities and university places.
And as international league tables show, many education systems around the world are improving at a rate of knots - with countries like Germany and Poland making huge leaps forward and climbing rapidly up the league tables.
Already, the USA is producing 4 times as many engineering graduates as the UK; India 8 times as many; China 20 times as many. China, in fact, is producing 7 million graduates a year: 1 for each school age child in England.
So this government is determined to make radical improvements to our education system.
Earlier this week, we introduced a new national curriculum which will help us to give all children in this country the very best education possible.
From advanced fractions and computer coding to some of the greatest works of literature in the English language, our new curriculum is rigorous, engaging and tough.
It will prepare children to become the great British engineers, scientists, writers and thinkers of our future - and inspire a generation.
World class maths
Right at the centre of this new curriculum is maths.
Maths is the universal language of the 21st century. Advanced maths - mechanics, modelling, logic, probability - isn’t a minority pursuit, it’s mass market.
Maths is, in fact, essential for an increasing number of university courses, a growing range of careers - and the only subject that has been proven to add to earnings, by up to 10% at A level, even when every other factor is taken into account.
So our new, more rigorous primary curriculum focuses on the vital building blocks of maths like arithmetic and fractions, giving children the best possible preparation for more advanced work later.
We’ve learnt lessons from the top performing countries around the world (many of whom are present today), those at the top of global education league tables - and made sure that our curriculum can match up to theirs.
We’re removing calculators from primary tests - making sure that children aren’t just plugging numbers into a magic box, but understanding the principles of what they’re doing. And we’re encouraging children to become fluent in their times tables at a younger age, mastering up to the 12 times table by age 9; and introducing fractions from 5.
Secondary maths is more demanding, so that our students can compete on a level with their contemporaries in Singapore and Shanghai. We’re boosting funding for great organisations like the United Kingdom Mathematics Trust’s Mathematics Summer Schools and Mathematical Circles - which I hope many of you may already have come across.
And we’ve put more emphasis on the mathematical requirements for science - with much greater focus on mathematical modelling and problem-solving, including more sophisticated mechanics.
Most radical of all, we are transforming maths after 16.
At the moment, far fewer 16- to 19-year-olds study maths in England than in almost every other developed country. Around 85% of young people study maths to 18 in Japan, compared to just 20% here.
But in the modern world, maths is an essential for every single young person in the country. So we are creating new, exciting mid-level qualifications to plug the gap between GCSE and A level, working with Cambridge University to drive up standards at A level and supporting those who haven’t yet achieved a C at GCSE to keep studying - so that, by 2020, the vast majority of young people will be studying maths right up until the age of 18.
We are also asking universities to set up new maths free schools for talented mathematicians. One of the first two will be in Exeter, opening in 2014.
Computing, coding and programming
We want to make sure that every young person in the country has the opportunity to become fluent in the language of maths - and take that fluency with them into adult life.
But we also want children to understand the logic and structure of the digital world.
In the 21st century, all young people will need to know how to code, not just to type; to enter the world of programming and ‘speak computer’.
Cornwall has been a hotbed of innovation for centuries, from Humphrey Davis to Richard Trevithick.
The new computing curriculum will ensure that children will start learning how to code and program from the age of 5.
Modern technology contains so many possibilities to transform education - we want schools to make the most of it.
Science to understand and improve the world around us
Our new national curriculum will also ensure that pupils learn about cutting edge scientific developments like particle physics, bioscience, DNA and genetics. Building on core underlying principles from Newton to Boyle, and core scientific concepts such as evolution and energy - making sure that they are properly learnt and understood.
So at primary, we want children to get a really solid foundation in the basics of scientific knowledge and language, backed up by more and higher quality practical work and experiments - building on the approaches to science education in high-performing jurisdictions like Singapore and Alberta.
By making sure that children are secure in the fundamentals, we are giving them the skills and knowledge they will need to tackle more complex issues later.
Children will learn about inspirational scientists from history - finding out how figures like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton helped to develop the theory of gravitation, and how chemists create entirely new materials (like Spencer Silver, who invented the glue for sticky notes).
At secondary, we’re making sure that pupils will study the three disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics in much greater depth.
There’ll be a new focus on essential areas like genetics, the genome and recent developments in genetic engineering; climate science; and diet and nutrition.
We’re strengthening the mathematical content in all sciences, so that students have the sort of mathematical knowledge and skills that these subjects require. Biology, for example, has advanced significantly over the last 20 years - perhaps more so than any other science - and new developments in areas like genetic engineering, medical discoveries and drug development all need strong mathematical skills.
We’re making GCSEs more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous - with more testing of mathematics in science GCSEs, to improve progression to A levels; more challenging mechanics problems in physics; a stronger focus on evolution and genetics in biology. And we’re making A levels more stretching to better prepare students for the demands of university study.
Inspirational design and technology
We also want to encourage students to use scientific and technological skills in the physical world around them - through design and technology, the appliance of science.
Rigorous design and technology courses will help to inspire the designers and innovators of the future.
Not just those working in industries like manufacturing and engineering, but fashion, agriculture, medicine, food technology - almost every career in the 21st century will need these advanced skills.
So we want schools to be able to try out inspirational practical work - including the very latest technologies and techniques like bio-mimicry, 3D printers, advanced mechanics and CAD-CAM.
Science for all - XX and XY chromosomes alike
I hope that our exciting new curriculum will help to engage all young people in the possibilities of science, maths and technology.
But it is absolutely crucial that all young people have the opportunity to get involved in this brave new world.
When this government took office, we introduced the English Baccalaureate measure to encourage more teenagers to study the core academic GCSE subjects that employers and universities value. Not just maths and English, but chemistry, biology, physics, a language, geography or history; and, now, computer science.
In just a few years (since 2009), the number of young people in state schools entered for triple science GCSEs has doubled. In 2005, just 5.3% of students in state schools were entered for triple science. Last year, that figure was 23.4%.
We would still like to see that percentage rising much higher. But it’s encouraging to see that any increase at GCSE has a knock on effect at A level and beyond.
Maths, further maths, physics and chemistry were all among the 10 fastest growing A level subjects last year. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of teenagers taking physics A level grew by almost 29%; chemistry, by around 28%; biology, by almost 20%.
This is great news. But we need to make sure that all young people are sharing in these opportunities.
Because in this country, for far too long, girls have been falling behind - achieving highly at GCSE, then dropping out of physics and chemistry classrooms altogether.
According to the Institute of Physics, 49% of maintained co-educational schools sent no girls on to take A level physics in 2011. Only 6,500 girls studied physics in 2012 - unchanged from 5 years ago - compared to 24,000 boys.
In maths, international tests show that the gap in achievement between boys and girls is wider here than almost anywhere else in the world. 60% of 2012 A level maths entrants were male. For further maths it was 70%, and for physics 79%.
No wonder that that translates into far fewer women working in science in adult life. Less than 9% of engineers in the UK are women - compared to around 20% in Italy, 26% in Sweden - and only 13% of our science, technology, engineering and maths workforce are women.
But as Yewande Akinola, last year’s winner of the ‘Young Woman Engineer of the Year’ award and water engineer at Arup, has said, “a lot of girls see it as a career for blokes. When you’re at school, it’s difficult to see that there’s anything beyond hammers and metalwork and boilersuits - when in fact the job is all about design, creativity and innovation”.
And a study by the Royal Society of Edinburgh has shown that increasing the number of women in the UK labour market could bring 15 to 23 billion pounds-worth of value into the economy - with science, technology, engineering and maths accounting for at least £2 billion of that.
So we hope our new, exciting, stretching curriculum will encourage more girls to study science after 16.
And I want to encourage all of you here today - particularly those with 2 X chromosomes - to spread the word about science, and to continue to study it yourselves.
I don’t think of myself as particularly old. Although when I look at this sea of faces, perhaps I need to reassess.
But I am constantly amazed by how much the world has changed even since I was your age. Mobile phones - and not just for calls, but for emails, texts, and access to the vast landscape of the internet; the birth of the web, blossoming from a techy toy to one of our basic utilities, like water or electricity. I can still remember sitting in the computer lab at university seeing the world wide web for the very first time.
None of us can predict how the world will change in our lifetimes, or what new scientific advances will, all of a sudden, make everything that went before them seem obsolete.
But we know that every new technology depends on a solid base of science and maths. The sort of academic study which should be the core of every education; the universal entitlement for every child in this country, and around the world.
I hope you all enjoy the next few days, and make the most of the exciting and inspirational science that will be all around you. And I wish you all the very best for your futures.
You will be the scientists, inventors and designers of the 21st century, giving your name to whole galaxies of stars or infinitesimal fragments of genetic code - you will be the ones making the future happen.