Every shelf has a silver lining

Pssst! Don’t mention physics, chemistry or biology. We did once, but we think we got away with it.

Aficionados of Fawlty Towers may well recognise that as a variation on a theme. While it doesn’t have the same punch as the original line, it sums up a ludicrous situation relating to the development of a new secondary school science curriculum which appears to have a problem with basic science.

Relief for many teachers and believers in the merit of science, then, that something useful appears to have come out of the prolonged coalition government’s negotiations. While they drag on, the proposed science curriculum has been put up on a dusty shelf.

The draft curriculum was leaked in July, when an early version was sent to a handful of science teachers for feedback ahead of a wider release for consultation.

There was a soupcon of support for its aims. But there was a much wider sense of outrage that a science curriculum did not even mention physics, chemistry or biology. Instead, science would be taught in four streams — the Earth system; biodiversity; food, energy and water; and infectious diseases.

Teachers who saw the early proposal had "grave concerns". Not only was it an embarrassment, but it would lead to plummeting pupil achievement, they said.

However, one of the curriculum developers, the University of Waikato’s Dr Cathy Buntting, said the intention was still to teach the physics and chemistry needed so pupils could "engage with the big issues of our time".

While the Ministry of Education intended to release the curriculum for consultation last month, at the same time as the draft arts and technology curriculums, it decided to shelve it until the next government has had a chance to voice its opinion.

Great idea. Hopefully the judgment it comes up with is to start again on a new proposed programme.

Image: ODT files
Image: ODT files
One of the many pronounced intentions of a National-led government has been to lift our education standards. Separately from that, we have been agonising for many years over how to better prepare our young people in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with the ultimate aim of improving our woeful national spending on science compared with similarly sized countries.

It would seem highly unlikely we can do that by removing all mention of the core science subjects. There may well be an argument for teaching them in a manner which illustrates how they can be applied, rather than just in a pure, whiteboard way. But before applying knowledge, pupils need to be au fait with basic and more advanced principles.

Ironically, this week we have been reminded in the news of the beauty and importance of science.

There was the heart-warming story of Grants Braes School 9-year-old Alistair McLeod, who inherited his love of science from his dad, Phil.

Alistair scored New Zealand’s highest mark in the recent International Competitions and Assessments for Schools (ICAS) year 5 science exam. While he likes computer science the most, physics and chemistry are in second and third place respectively.

Meanwhile at the University of Otago, physics professor Niels Kjaergaard won the Royal Society Te Apārangi Hector Medal for 2023. He has been leading a team of scientists studying the quantum world of atoms, and how they behave in extreme conditions.

Their work, with its huge implications in terms of understanding our universe better, would never have been possible if physics hadn’t been taught at secondary school level.

Talk about something "being shelved" generally means frustration for the developer and possibly tears of joy running down the faces of bureaucrats, especially if it is an idea that was going to be time-consuming to enact or a radical new way of doing things which might threaten their existence.

In this case, we are on the side of the bureaucrats. We think it is a good thing that the new government will get a chance to review the work which has been done and decide if this is the direction in which we want to take our young people.

As difficult and uncompromising as physics and chemistry might seem, overlooking their wisdom and basic principles is not going to make the physical world change the way it operates.