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Science, Science and Science

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Remember Tony Blair's three priorities for government? They were 'education, education and education'. Talking to prospective free school principal David Perks, I became convinced that his 'three priorities for education' would be 'science, science and science'.

Perks is an Oxbridge physics graduate who has taught physics in state schools for 25 years. Teaching, school teaching in particular, is his love. Science is his passion. He has written an influential book, What is science education for?, and many articles for a variety of journals and newspapers defending science education. Actively engaged with education policy making, Perks has been a contributor to numerous parliamentary enquiries and is helping develop the new national science curriculum. He has written a Primary Science Curriculum and is the co-founder of the inspirational Physics Factory for secondary school students. An ideas man with a desire for educational change, he has set an ambitious target of 2013 to open a free school, the East London Science School, in, or near to, where he lives in the socially and educationally deprived borough of Tower Hamlets in London.

Perks has endorsements from some distinguished figures, including Brian Foster, the Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Oxford, who says: "In our rapidly changing world, a good education in science has never been more important. The East London Science School will open doors to pupils in East London that have for too long been closed."

I met him on his way home from a full day of teaching physics to put some key questions to him about his project. His apparent weariness soon faded and his enthusiasm for real teaching and clear arguments made me think he might be on to something important.

I asked about his interest in setting up a 'free school' and wondered why he thought science couldn't be properly taught within the existing school system instead? He talked of his 25 years in various state schools trying to do this and rattled off the list of reasons why it was impossible. First, science is "no longer taught, because teachers teach to the test." He wants to do something 'completely different' with his school and intends to put 'teaching and the subject back at the centre'.

Second, the slavish adoption of Ofsted criteria has been a disaster for science education: "we have a bizarre situation in schools where the consequence of expecting teachers to jump through hoops to satisfy Ofsted can make good teachers into bad teachers and vice versa."

Third, "there has been a complete destruction of the possibility of experimentation and what passes for 'education' is now largely driven by league tables."

Fourth, "Schools have given up even trying to get every child through", and Perks will do the opposite: "I intend to push kids towards the top universities. This is a metaphor for the whole thing...for giving education a real shot. And I mean education for all children - we will open the door to anyone who wants to walk through it."

Many of Perks' criticisms seem to be familiar complaints about the restrictions of an assessment-led curriculum, the obsession with league tables and the irrelevance of Ofsted judgements. The originality of his approach is the commitment to teaching the subject of science in experimental ways and his belief that all children can be educated rather than seeing the majority as incapable, as if they all had special needs.

You could call his proposals 'inclusive' but that usually means reducing education to something like special education for all. His idea of 'inclusion' is to offer the highest educational possibilities for all. Some will inevitably fail - Perks says we just have to accept this as reality - "but every child still deserves a good education. However, we also see it as part of our duty to our pupils to work with local employers to give our pupils the best way into a trade or profession if they choose not to take an academic route post 16."

The title of the school implies a focus on one particular subject area. Was he not narrowing the curriculum in setting up something called a 'science school'? Why not a school offering a good all round or a 'liberal' education? The answer Perks gave was blunt: "If you don't have science at the core, it's not really education."

But Perks is not part of the usual instrumental 'STEM' subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) approach that aims to target educational resources towards the supposed requirements of the economy. Nor is he revisiting 19th century debates about a classical versus a modern education. His educational philosophy puts science at the core of a modern liberal education because his curriculum is drawn from epistemology, which means from the disciplines that constitute our contemporary knowledge of the world. Foremost in our contemporary understanding of the world is scientific knowledge. His school will offer a knowledge curriculum including vanishing subjects such as history and modern foreign languages.

Perks believes that the attitude of policy makers, educationalists and teachers towards science tells us most about what's wrong with our schools today: "Schools think science is too hard and they are walking away from the subject. This is a real disaster for education. That's one reason why teachers don't believe we can educate all children."

Finally, I wondered why he is setting his school in East London. In his reply, Perks - who has two young children - became more parent than teacher: "Like many parents in East London, I aspire for a good academic education for my children. That's not a choice that exists at the moment."

The East London Science School will offer that choice: "Through our non-selective admissions policy, we will cater for more than 1,000 pupils aged 11-18, including a sixth form of 400 plus, in one of the most deprived boroughs in Europe." Perks hopes he can get support for his project from those who say they are committed to building great schools in London. He already has support from an increasing number of excellent teachers who want to work in his school.

Perks' proposal is attractive to many parents and many have already signed up to ensure places for their children. The school slogan is 'To Stand on the Shoulders of Giants', but the school is not for dwarfs but those who set out to educate the giants of the future. If you live in East London and want your child to be a science giant, get them on the waiting list.