Setting the standard for science

Written by: Dr Rachel Bibby | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With STEM high on the agenda, Dr Rachel Bibby looks at the UK’s global performance in science education and how one school is setting the gold standard

In December, the latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results were announced, causing jubilation and commiseration across the world.

In total, 75 countries participated in PISA 2015, all part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In England, 5,600 students in 206 schools took part in the study, which focuses on science, mathematics and reading.

PISA has been used to compare the reading, mathematics and science performance of pupils across the globe every three years since 2000. But the headlines from this year’s results have tended to focus on the negatives: England, Scotland and Northern Ireland failed to make the top three countries in any area. But is this the whole picture?

If we take a closer look, an interesting picture is beginning to emerge, particularly in science. UK students are enjoying science, and can imagine growing up to have a career in science. In fact, the UK is one of only seven OECD countries achieving the optimum balance of enjoyment, performance, attainment, understanding, aspiration, and likelihood/expectation of a career in science. This year’s data from PISA showed:

  • By age 15, students in the UK perform above the OECD average in science.
  • UK boys and girls are equally likely to score at Level 5 or 6, the highest levels of proficiency, in science
  • One quarter of UK students want to work in science.
  • A higher than average number of UK students have positive attitudes towards science.

Yvonne Baker, chief executive of STEM Learning – which runs the National STEM Learning Centre in York – said: “These positive headlines are the result of the hard work and dedication of teachers, support staff and STEM Ambassadors in schools, colleges, and community organisations, and STEM employers from across the UK.”

Carmel College, an 11 to 18 academy in Darlington was one of the 206 English schools sampled to produce the UK’s PISA results – and Carmel College is bucking a number of the PISA trends.

In mathematics their results were ahead of England’s national average by 29 points. In science and reading, their results were higher than the national results for every country, including OECD leaders such as Japan, Finland and Estonia.

We caught up with the school’s science curriculum leader, Brenda Bower.

Q: Why do you think Carmel College is bucking the trend and doing so well?

“It is more about what we do as a matter of good practice in the classroom. Day-to-day standards of excellent teaching, high expectations of the students, to which they respond positively, and the desire of the students to do well, which is part of the classroom culture in science.

“We have subject specialists teaching GCSE and A level, with nobody teaching outside their specialism – this brings a wealth of knowledge to our students and often a desire to emulate what we have achieved.

“Some students have a flair for science and opt to take separate sciences at GCSE. We have a high uptake (approximately 45 per cent) who opt for triple science and this is not confined to a select few high-achievers. Ninety-one per cent of our additional science students last year achieved a grade C or above which was a fantastic achievement for our students, who are from across the whole range of abilities.”

Q: Are there any “stand-out” projects that Carmel College undertakes and what CPD are staff able to access?

“Opportunities for STEM visits, STEM club, university visits and a whole range of science days we put on in school are available to all students – and not just the more able.

“All staff have a very varied CPD programme, but in addition in science we have dedicated sessions where we look at some of the more challenging areas and ‘teach’ each other – we might look at the practical work and demonstrate the best ways to approach teaching it. We have a culture of sharing resources and skills within the department and I believe this helps staff at all stages in their careers.”

Q: Do any special success stories stick out among your students?

“We have many students who go on to take sciences at A level and then beyond at university. Students regularly gain places at Oxford and Cambridge to study but also the other top universities in the UK. Some of our greatest achievements however have been with students who are not high-achievers but who have gone beyond their predicted grades and followed a career path in science.”


So, what can we learn from Carmel College’s example? One key aspect that jumps out is the opportunities that are open to all students – not just high-flyers.

Academics at King’s College London have recently coined the term “science capital”. This interesting concept is designed to help broaden interest in science and to encourage more young people to go on to careers in science. Science capital can be imagined as a “hold-all”, or bag, packed with all the knowledge, attitudes, experiences and resources around science that you might acquire throughout your life.

Increasing the amount of science capital that each student has, by offering visits, science days and opportunities to join a STEM club, is something that Carmel College does really well. This additional science capital can lead to students having additional buy-in to the subject – wanting to do well and go on to further study.

Another important aspect is teachers’ subject-knowledge. Across the UK, many teachers are teaching outside of their specialisms, with a critical shortage of mathematics and science specialists – particularly in physics.

The Department for Education Workforce Census, released in June last year, revealed that around 40 per cent of physics teachers have no relevant post A level qualifications in their subject; 25 per cent of mathematics and chemistry teachers are in the same position, according to analysis by The Telegraph.

Carmel College is in the unusual position where all their teachers are teaching within their specialism. However, our research shows that subject-specific CPD can ensure teachers have access to accurate, relevant and up-to-date subject knowledge, and this can go a long way towards “bridging the gap”, and ensures that teachers feel confident and inspired in their classrooms.

  • Dr Rachel Bibby is senior regional lead for the North of England at the National STEM Learning Network.

Further information

  • STEM Learning runs the National STEM Learning Centre in York and provides professional development, resources, bursaries and tools to teachers, technicians and teaching assistants across the country. Visit
  • STEM Learning also manages the national STEM Clubs and the STEM Ambassadors programmes: and
  • Carmel College is a Science Learning Partnership, part of a network of dozens of schools across England which offer subject-specific CPD and support to their local area. For more about Science Learning Partnerships, visit


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