Brian Cox: Testing is getting in the way of teaching

Industry should take more responsibility in informing academia with hands-on learning. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Assessments, audits, targets or taking stock – these are all dirty terms as far as Professor Brian Cox is concerned. The distinguished author and co-author of 950 scientific publications, former keyboard player for D:Ream and Dare, popular BBC presenter, and the recipient of a D-grade A-level in mathematics, thinks that “bureaucracy” is undermining the relationship between academia and the very industries it aims to serve. 

Speaking to Spotlight and others at the IP Expo 2017 at the ExCel Centre in east London, the 49-year-old warned that the United Kingdom’s chronic skills gap, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), is in part down to a lack of collaboration between schools, universities, businesses and, crucially, government. Continuous testing, either of students or institutions themselves, Cox said, runs the risk of regimenting learning as part of an ultra-restricted curriculum, rather than meeting real-life needs. He explained: “Ultimately, it is the government’s responsibility to try and develop policies that encourage and make it easy for institutions to overlap with business and industry. I have a real dislike for measuring for the sake of measuring. I once told David Willetts [former Minister of State for Universities and Science] a surefire way of increasing the productivity of academics by five per cent – abolish assessments entirely.”

Cox said he was sceptical that consistent testing drove an improvement in standards and recoiled at the idea of using children or indeed teachers as measurement probes. “All these things that supposedly make you focus – papers and tests – are really preventing the opportunity for academics to focus on their actual work.”

In the UK, science was included in the Key Stage 2 SATs tests until 2009, when they were scrapped. Since then, teacher assessments in science have been reported instead. In 2016, 81 per cent of 10 to 11-year-old pupils in the UK reached the expected standard in science in teacher assessments, but Cox questioned the merits of rote learning compared to practical experiments. 

In viewing education in isolation – in terms of its own budget, curriculum and attainment metrics – Cox suggested that the UK government is missing a glorious chance to start recognising business and industry demands sooner. Feeding the issues faced in science and technology into the skills pipeline at entry level, he argued, would improve uptake and enthusiasm among youngsters. Cox added: “In universities, particularly, where the academic time there is so restricted and so costly, the average space or time an academic has to go and do something else is limited. We should ask if there is anything you can do to measure the success of a school or university outside of a classroom or lecture theatre. We can’t afford to let bureaucracy stifle the interaction between universities, schools and businesses.” 

Regional inconsistencies, Cox continued, have played a role in creating an “information gap” in some areas of the UK. He advised that the bottle-necking of investment in London and the south-east, and only certain parts of London and the south-east at that, means that even where industries are spread, the talent pool from which they are hiring is not. Cumbria’s nuclear industry, he pointed out, seldom recruits from Cumbria, and Cox linked this to an awareness problem. “We see it especially in families where the parents might not have been to university. Some of [the solution] is to do with breaking down those barriers of perception. It’s about how the institutions, industries and businesses behave – and how they present themselves. It’s an uneven spread; there’s no lack of ability, but there is a lack of a sense of possibility. Industry and business need to develop an active relationship with the schools to get people interested.

“I was in a school in Cumbria recently, right in the heart of one of the high-end tech industries of the world – that’s the nuclear industry. The nuclear industry wants to put effort in trying to extract people and trying to get local children in schools to progress to the highest levels of that industry. It’s true of other areas too – like Tower Hamlets in east London. You can sit in a school in Tower Hamlets and see the city of London, but it’s almost like another country and very few of those families are in connection with the capital.”

Without the steady flow of skilled migrant workers from the European Union, it’s been argued that the UK’s decision to leave the bloc via Brexit has injected fresh impetus to address the UK’s STEM skills deficit. Does Cox agree? “Perhaps. It would be nice, but it goes well beyond Brexit. You’re talking about the next decade of further education, not the year-and-a-half timescale we’ve been told. We need long-term investment in home talent.”