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Three Cheers for Science Technicians: The Unsung Heroes of the Classroom!

31/03/2016 17:13 | Updated 31 March 2016

Since the publication of the education White Paper a fortnight ago, there have been very vociferous discussions around the Department for Education (DFE)'s planned forced academisation process, and around school budgets and teacher workload. In the midst of all this, an important piece of research has been published that shines a light on those who are all-too-often the unsung heroes of the classroom: the science technicians. As the report rightly claims, in many schools they are "invisible yet invaluable", so let's take a moment to hear what they have to say.

Science technicians are, after all, essential to the setting up and running of experiments in UK classrooms. While there is continual concern around the lack of trained science teachers - and rightly so - the science technician shortage is not given the same level of exposure. This is something Professor Lord Winston has claimed is "shocking" as, he claims, "practical science is one of the best ways of getting school pupils excited about and involved in science and mathematics... the technical support for such lessons is a critical part of a good science education". As TV presenter Johnny Ball has succinctly put it, "no science technician, no science!"

So who are these unsung heroes, and what might be the cause of such a shortage? The report by Gratnells and Preproom.org, which draws upon findings from 1310 technicians, offers many answers. The overwhelming majority of technicians are female - 76% - and just 28% are under the age of 40, something that is a serious cause for concern by the reports' authors as a significant proportion are now heading for retirement. Just under half (49%) have a degree and 3% are qualified up to PhD level. They are a dedicated bunch: 61% have been in the profession for over five years. And only 23% say they believe they won't be in the role in five years time, compared to the 43% of teachers planning to leave the profession in the next five years.

This is despite the fact that there isn't seen to be much of a career ladder to climb up - 64I of technicians said that career progression wasn't possible at their establishment, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that there are typically only two types of technician in schools: "standard" and "senior".

And, by any yardstick, pay is not great - the average monthly pay after deductions is just £1,143, with only 6% earning between £1,500 - £2,000. 71% of technicians believe this to be either "fairly low" or "far too low". Strikingly despite this low salary, 28% of technicians are the only wage earner in their household.

They work considerable overtime, with almost 60 per percent regularly working over their contracted hours. And 59% of these technicians do not get paid for it or get time off in lieu. And the workload they are facing is getting ever greater - with almost 70% saying their daily workload has increased since starting off in the profession.

The biggest concern they have, however, is that they feel they lack recognition for the important job that they do. 39% of science technicians say that their school leaders do not seem to understand "at all" what the job involves - and a shocking 77% say this is the case with government. As one put it, "I feel that this is a 'lost' profession... we don't get the recognition we need". Others emphasised the "high-level complexity and hazards of the technician role" and claimed that it should be recognised accordingly. Many, says another, "see the job as glorified cleaners and general dogsbodies. Few appreciate the level of knowledge required."

All this to one side, however, science technicians evidently love their jobs - with a huge 85% saying they are happy in their roles. The main challenge seems to be to ensure that the profession begins to get the recognition it deserves, both financially and in terms of an increased understanding of what the role requires, and that a new generation falls in love with the profession to replace the number rapidly heading for retirement.

Who better, then, to sing the praises of the profession than technicians themselves? One said that they loved "being able to use my creativity to try out new things or make a demonstration work". Another said they loved, "the randomness of it, you never know what you are going to be asked for and usually we have it somewhere." Indeed a total of 229 technicians trumpeted the "variety" of the job as one of the things they loved most.

One technician spoke of "seeing the joy on the faces on the Year 7 pupils when they are shown science experiments that they haven't seen before and realise that they are actually going to do them themselves".

No wonder, then, that they find their jobs so rewarding: three cheers for the science technicians!

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