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Circling the drain

According to a Buckingham University report 1/4 of UK secondary (11-16/18) schools don’t have a single physics teacher. In inner London it’s half.

It makes me want to teach a lesson on ballistics using a large catapult and Ed Balls, the People’s Commissar for “Children, Families and Schools”.

The research also shows that physics teachers are more likely to be concentrated in particular types of school, such as those which are high-performing, grammar, all-girl and faith schools.

Well I’m shocked. Shocked I tell ya! That rare and skilled graduates are choosing to teach in a place where they can wear a suit not made of kevlar and where kids actually want to learn. I have taught adults who didn’t want to learn and it’s like pushing a lake up a mountain with a broom. It continues with another truly counter-intuitive conclusion.

The report’s authors argue that physics has been pushed into decline by a drive for general science courses. They call for the subject to be supported in a way that protects its separate identity.

“One admissions tutor said ‘until recently we have barely admitted that physics existed as a school subject – physics, chemistry and biology have not been allowed to be mentioned in official documentation’,” says the report.

Well, they introduced GCSE Combined Science when I was still in my teens and I thought then it was a terrible move. I, fortunately, just avoided it. Combined Science or General Science is bullshit. Would you replace French, German and Spanish with a course in Combined Languages? No, because you’d look a right tit saying, “Garcon! zwei bierre, por favor!” I have seen recent GCSE “Science” papers and sometimes I can’t understand the questions because they’re not actually science.

This is part of the problem with recruiting and retaining (every year we lose 26% more than we gain) physics teachers. They want to teach physics. They want to challenge talented kids with difficult work and help the rest gain some sort of an understanding of the world around them but it’s not just about the physics for the sake of it. I was going to enumerate the jobs a grasp of physics is useful for but frankly neither me no you, dear reader, have the time for it. Lads I knew at school who left at sixteen and got apprenticeships (yeah, I know, but you still could in the early ’90s) needed physics. It’s not an elitist thing it’s everything. Without physics there is no engineering, chemistry is alchemy, biology is bug-collecting, healthcare is back to barber-surgeons and leeches, astronomy is astrology and we’re basically back to the fucking cave.

Of course it’s a vicious circle. The more we dumb-down the sciences the more we put bright kids off studying them further. We produce fewer science graduates and it goes round and round, circling the drain of our oblivion as a scientific, technical culture which is no longer afraid of the bogeymen lurking in the dark because we have electricity. I have little doubt that the government (any government – this isn’t just a Labour thing) will announce an initiative to make science teaching even more “relevant” and “issue-based” or some such baloney. As though the systematic study of spacetime, matter, motion and energy isn’t in itself “relevant”. It just goes to show how thoroughly disconnected from science (or reality) the political “elite” are.

OK, if any of them are avid readers of the Kitty Counter and me then this is what they must do. Don’t make science (and maths) more “relevant”. The whole idea of creating a curriculum in which all the kids, all of the time like all the subjects is demented and utterly arse over tit. You can (but won’t) make physics more popular by ramping it up intellectually. Physics is an adrenaline rush when you “get” something or calculate something for yourself… It is the key to the universe. It’s super-cool and that’s because of it’s difficulty and abstraction and it’s differentness. It’s a skill. It’s just like learning a language. It’s just really cool to write all those Greek letters and weird symbols and actually know what’s going on. It is truly empowering and what does the average teenager want more than to have a feeling of power and control? That’s why I went into physics. I saw those baffling squiggles and I just thought, “I wanna do that! I wanna speak that language! I wanna play piccolo in Josiah Willard Gibbs’ Grand Cannonical Ensemble.” It is grappling with the alien and when you slam it you get a feeling like no other. It’s obviously not everyone’s bowl of chowder but so what? We also need marketing executives, hairdressers and telephone sanitizers.

Languages are also on the slide. Quelle surprise! We have a rigorously fucked-up edumacational system. It is small wonder that anything deemed “difficult” or “elitist” is on the way to Hackney to bet on the greyhounds. I might be tempted, if I was wearing my aluminium fedora, to suggest that this is a deliberate attempt to disempower the citizenry by keeping them from funny foreigners and dangerous ideas and any kind of intellectual empowerment. But I won’t. I think they are too thick to think of that.

Our scientific culture is precious and fragile. It may just be a brief, bright period in human history (like the Ionian Awakening) before we descend into barbarism again. It is not something we can afford to treat in the cavalier fashion we are doing because our civilization is not guaranteed. It is something which must eternally be fought for. Science is our only light in the darkness against loonies, troofers, Islamists, intelligent designers, Greens, whack-jobs, Marxists, Gudjieff and generalised New Age quackery. The importance of science education is that simple and it is that vital.

I have beaten this drum here before but I make no apology for that because without science and an at least moderately scientifically literate general population we are fucked. Make no mistake. We are only a couple of generations away from returning to a world haunted by angels and demons.

And that means my plans for a holiday home on Titan will be truly fucked.

One Comment

  1. RAB says:

    It’s not just science Nick, it’s everything.
    Our education system has been fucked over for at least 30 years now.

    Our masters have always believed that things that are difficult to understand should be made easy to understand.
    Not realising that the sheer effort of trying to understand what appears to be incomprehensible is part of the process of sharpening one’s mind, and giving the confidence to tackle other “difficult” stuff.

    It’s not just science though , it is across the board.

    My old history teacher was on the radio a while back (he’s a Crown Court Judge now, saw were education was going back in the 70s and got out).

    He said that he was very happy at Cathays High and what a good school it was, but he gave some figures that were truely alarming.
    The school went comprehensive in my last year.
    Mr jacobs said that my year had 90 pupils entered for History O Level, of which 80 of us duely passed with flying colours.
    But he said, two years later when he left to do Law, the figures were down to 20 entered but only 8 passes!

    We are fucked mate, fucked!
    Nobody knows nuffink anymore

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