Fulfilling the UK’s science teacher quota remains a pressing issue (DfE, 2019a). Increased science teacher vacancies (DfE, 2019b) and difficulty in recruiting science teachers are ongoing challenges (TES, 2018), and science teachers have also been included on the Shortage Occupation List (Migration Advisory Committee, 2019). Additionally, although 91 per cent of biology teachers have a relevant post-A-level qualification, this falls to 75 and 62 per cent for chemistry and physics teachers, respectively (Migration Advisory Committee, 2019, p. 195). The 2019 Teacher Retention and Recruitment Strategy claims that a high interest in joining the teaching profession exists, but notes that this does not translate into applications (DfE, 2019a). To address this issue, the report sets out three key areas of focus, one of which is to ‘encourage and enable more potential teachers to try teaching’ (p. 32). In line with this, the third step towards becoming a teacher on the government’s ‘get into teaching’ website is to ‘consider school experience’ (DfE, nd). However, Stuart et al. (2011) found that university students with lower socio-economic status (regardless of ethnicity, age or gender) spent more time in paid work and engaged with fewer other extra-curricular activities. If science undergraduates are studying for their science degree and also potentially working to fund their studies, how will they find time to gain an insight into teaching as a possible career? How can we recruit science graduates into teaching more inclusively?

Undergraduate science education units

I convene two undergraduate science education units in my institution’s Department of Education. These units are available as options for students in other university departments and are predominantly selected by Faculty of Science students in their final year of study. The first unit addresses a range of topics, including assessment for learning, learning theories and curriculum development, all within the context of science teaching. It also incorporates a short placement in a local secondary school, with students synthesising topic knowledge with school experience to inform their written assignment. The second unit has no placement but demands that students critically engage with issues such as the role of language in the science classroom, developing a scientifically literate population and external influences that can affect engagement with science education. Again, students collate their analysis in a written assignment. The content and ethos of the units support some of the key recruitment and pre-service tasks presented in Luft et al.’s (2011, p. 461) secondary science teacher recruitment framework:

  • Experience the study and improvement of teaching
  • Experience the complexity of teaching science in a school
  • Learn about guiding documents in science education
  • Examine beliefs critically in relation to a vision of good teaching
  • Develop an understanding of learners, learning and issues of diversity
  • Develop skills to study and improve teaching.

I do not claim that the science education units allow students to fully realise Luft’s tasks, but they do provide a valuable starting point for science undergraduates to consider a career in teaching. 

Integration for inclusivity

Importantly, both units are credit-bearing; they help to broaden science undergraduates’ understanding of science teaching and allow them to engage with the theory and practice of science education as an integral part of their science degree, regardless of other commitments such as employment or caring responsibilities. Furthermore, considering Bourdieu’s (1986) concept of social capital, students with lower social capital tend to have smaller networks and fewer connections. It may be prohibitively difficult for them to secure school experience to inform their exploration of teaching as a career option in comparison to other peers. The government’s portal for requesting school experience as part of the ‘get into teaching’ campaign goes some way to addressing this potential disconnect; however, applicants are not guaranteed school experience. In contrast, the first science education unit places all students in local schools during university study, reducing the need for students to find extra time to visit schools, establish networks individually and travel far to obtain school experience.

Impact on science teacher recruitment

One potential barrier to entering the profession is that science graduates have a plethora of potential career options. Many can also be more lucrative than teaching, although this could change with the government announcing a teacher starting salary of £30,000 by 2022–23. In the USA, Newton et al. (2010) championed the introduction of teaching to STEM graduates during their degree as a way to enhance STEM graduates’ consideration of secondary science teaching as a valid career pathway. In England, the government recently ran a pilot study aimed at recruiting STEM graduates into teaching by offering them a paid internship in schools during their degree (DfE, 2019c). The participating students highlighted that a key benefit of the internship was obtaining experience of science teaching before committing time and finances to the further study and training needed to pursue the career. Similarly, evidence from my science education units also supports an approach that signposts science teaching as a viable and rewarding career option for science graduates by exploring it during the time that students are studying for their science degree. For example, when asked ‘Why did you choose to study this unit?’, students commonly cite their interest in pursuing a science teaching career, or at least finding out more about it. Following completion of both units, one student stated:

‘The science education units helped solidify my decision to become a teacher… The ability to carry out a research/inquiry question utilising placements in school is in my opinion the selling point to the units. This opportunity strengthened my teacher training application and enthused me to become a teacher… having just started my PGCE, the science education units have given me a huge advantage. I have already critically engaged with a lot of recommended pedagogical literature, had experience writing in social science and debated a load of the topics [being] addressed.’

Another student, who only studied the second unit and thus had no placement experience, stated:

‘[I] said I was interested in becoming a science teacher… Yours was without a doubt the best module I took during my time at [university]… I am now 100 per cent sure about my decision to take on science teaching – you might recall I told you that I had an offer from Teach First.’

Student numbers also remain relatively high, indicative of the interest in the units: an average of 15 students per year enrolled on the first unit over the past six years (the unit is capped at 20 students to enable all to be placed in local schools) and an average of 23 students enrolled on the second unit over the past five years.

Further opportunities

There is a lack of recent research into STEM graduates’ perceptions of science teaching as a career and the barriers to science teacher recruitment in the UK, beyond a mathematical analysis of the absolute numbers of applicants, trainees and teachers. Working more closely with science undergraduates to determine how best to attract them into a teaching career (beyond the government’s current financial incentives) will be vital in ensuring recruitment and retention of enough UK science teachers. Here I have highlighted an initiative that could help to address the science teacher shortage and support the recruitment of well-qualified science teachers by embedding science education units within science degrees. The units will continue to evolve; for example, next semester I am planning to incorporate science teacher question-and-answer sessions into the second science education unit to connect it more directly with schools. Importantly, the existence of the units strengthens links between schools and their local university, enhancing opportunities for the schools. For example, the science education students have given talks to school students at the local placement schools about university life and studying STEM degrees. I also directly email the science teacher contacts at the local placement schools to share opportunities to get involved with research projects or other university-led initiatives, such as the development of teacher-researcher networks.

The approach presented is not the only one that could attract science undergraduates into the teaching profession. School leaders and teachers should feel able to contact universities, and vice versa, to foster collaborative relationships for investigating alternative initiatives that could also inclusively support science undergraduates with gaining experience and knowledge of science education. Such collaborative work could enthuse more science undergraduates to pursue a science teaching career, consequently addressing the science teacher shortage in the UK and leading to provision of a high-quality science education for as many school students across the country as possible.


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