Opinion

30 years of supporting UK science education

From supporting teachers across the UK to develop their professional skills, to creating an award-winning digital resource for teaching primary science – we’ve made a transformative difference in the education sector. Wellcome’s Nan Davies, who helped lead this work, shares some of the highlights as this programme comes to an end.

Teachers sitting in small groups around tables in a classroom.
A photograph of the author, Nan Davies.

Nan Davies

A photograph of the author, Nan Davies.

Nan Davies

Wellcome invested in UK science education for over 30 years. Our vision was for all young people to experience excellent, engaging science education that would help them make informed health-related decisions throughout their lives, and consider science as a career, contributing to that all-important pipeline of scientists for the future.

We understood the importance of formal and informal education and built our programme to support both areas.

Now, as Wellcome shifts its strategy and we step back from our support for science education, we reflect on the programme’s achievements.

Upskilling teachers through professional development 

Evidence suggests that the most important in-school factor for improving pupils’ performance is quality of teaching. That’s why our work in formal education focussed on supporting teachers. Our £25 million investment saw the National STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) Learning Centre in York open in 2005. The philosophy underpinning the centre is to deliver high-quality continuing professional development (CPD) to science teachers and technicians. This includes access to residential CPD, free for teachers at state schools through the provision of bursaries, funded by us, the government and others.

STEM Learning UK, which the National STEM Learning Centre is a part of, reaches 1.7 million students annually and connects with 270,000 teachers. And in 2020/2021 – a year of significant Covid-19 lockdowns – it delivered over 34,000 days of professional development.

Alongside our support of STEM Learning UK, we developed an initiative to ensure that all teachers would have access to high-quality subject-specific development. We funded research to inform this, calling for a 35-hour annual entitlement for all teachers. As we leave the sector, we are pleased that this call is being advanced by other organisations, spearheaded by the Institute of Physics.

We also launched a Primary Science Campaign in 2017, aiming to see better quality science being taught in UK primary schools. The lynchpin of this campaign was Explorify – an award-winning digital resource for teaching science. Over 86% of UK primary schools registered to use it in its first three years. Of 700 teachers who we surveyed 80% ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that the resource increased pupils’ science knowledge. Explorify has now moved to STEM Learning UK, where it continues to be used by teachers all over the UK.

Generating evidence to shape science education 

Research and evidence was at the centre of all our work, including a focus on improving the amount and quality of research related to science education. For example, we collaborated with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to explore the best ways to improve science education, and how best to retain science teachers given that they are more likely to leave teaching than non-science teachers.

We also worked with the EEF on our Education and Neuroscience funding programme, which sought to address the spread of ‘neuromyths’ – misconceptions about the mind and brain that are often used to justify ineffective approaches to teaching.

And, to better understand young people’s perspectives, we set up the Science Education Tracker (SET) in 2016. It surveyed 4,000 UK students between years 10 and 13 about their attitudes towards, and experiences of, science education and careers. We funded a second wave of SET in 2019 and are delighted to have supported its move to the Royal Society, who are working with Engineering UK on its continued delivery.

Maximising our impact through partnerships 

Supporting young people in informal settings was another core activity. We established two major partnerships: Curiosity with BBC Children in Need, and Science Learning+ with the National Science Foundation in the US.

Curiosity provided funding for 57 organisations to run exciting, engaging science activities aimed at children and young people experiencing disadvantage. These projects showed us that informal science activities can support young people’s personal and social development including improved peer relationships, better problem-solving skills and new career aspirations.

Science Learning+ aimed to strengthen the research and knowledge base, bridge the practice and research gap – as well as share knowledge and experience in informal STEM experiences. The NCCPE, with the British Science Association and NatCen Social Research, are looking after the final phase of the programme, with NCCPE working directly with the projects to draw on lessons learnt and maximise the impact of that learning.

Leaving science education in a strong position 

We believe our investment, in collaboration with other organisations, has made a transformative difference in science education over the last three decades.

And as Wellcome’s strategy takes a step back from science education, we’re confident that our dedicated partners will continue to ensure that the UK is a beacon of excellence in the sector.

  • A photograph of the person, Nan Davies.

    Nan Davies

    Head of Culture and Society Transition

    Wellcome

    Nan leads the management of a varied and important portfolio of projects and programmes in education, public engagement, and humanities and social science, which sit outside Wellcome’s new strategy.