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Connections, collaborations and professional autonomy in Scottish education

article_stuart-farmer-photo-1024Stuart Farmer received this year’s Bragg Medal and Prize of the IOP for his outstanding contributions to enhance the teaching and public image of physics and is distinguished internationally in education and outreach.

He is head of physics at Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen and is the IOP’s teacher network coordinator for Grampian and the Northern Isles.

Farmer has been involved in many professional activities beyond the classroom, playing a major part in curriculum and assessment developments in Scotland, contributing to independent advice on education to the Scottish government and serving on numerous committees and panels concerned with education in Scotland.

He chaired the trustees of the Association for Science Education (ASE) and has chaired ASE Scotland three times. He is also vice-chair of the IOP in Scotland’s committee and a member of the IOP’s Scottish education committee.

He has personally delivered many continuing professional development (CPD) sessions for teachers as well as contributing teaching materials and CPD workshops for the Optoelectronics College, being a member of its steering group.

He has also conducted research into the barriers to providing practical work in schools and for the Scottish part of the Relevance of Science Education Project.

Farmer answered some questions for the IOP about his career.

What first attracted you to physics?

Physics, as the way we find out about and try and best understand the world around us, has always provided plenty of opportunities to hold my interest. It was always one of my best subjects at school and when deciding on what to study at university it seemed likely to be the best for keeping my options open for the future – something that still applies today and is a good career guidance message for pupils.

Why did you decide to go into teaching?

I must admit that I initially just fell into teaching. It was something I had always considered as a possibility but I was also looking at other things. On completing my degree I applied for a number of jobs in other areas but they did not come to anything. I obtained a place on the PGCE course at the then Dundee College of Education and as nothing else had come along by the following autumn, I took it up.

The fact that in those days you could still get a grant when studying was certainly part of the equation. Before the end of the PGCE year I had the offer of several jobs around the east of Scotland so accepted a post as a probationer teacher at Kinross High School, which gave me a great start in the profession. Becoming a teacher is a decision I have not regretted.

You have been closely involved in continuing professional development for teachers and in enhancing the experience of students. Is that desire to improve physics teaching and learning rooted in the way you were taught physics at school, or in your own early teaching career, or in something else?

My motivation to support students, and particularly teachers who can then go on to support more students, is really rooted in a desire to ensure that what I do has the maximum impact. I can’t pin down any particular significant event in my own education or early career that influenced me, but I generally believe that in life you get out what you put in.

Early in my teaching career I attended some ASE conferences and found the dialogue with the other teachers I met thought-provoking and useful, so it wasn’t long before I found myself an ASE committee member, and things just snowballed from there.

Thinking and finding out about teaching and learning is fascinating. Teaching and learning is a much more complex process than many people realise, with lots of interactions and competing elements, and physics, being a practical subject, also provides lots of opportunities to do fun and interesting things.

Your work in curriculum development and as a member of several committees concerned with physics education is extensive. How do you find time to do all of this and also be head of physics at Robert Gordon’s College?

This is quite a common question asked of me. Part of my answer is that although it may be seen as if I am involved in many different things, there are some quite big overlaps between them so in some ways it is a case of doing 10 things for the effort of seven or something similar.

But ultimately I do things because I enjoy doing them and because I think they are of value and valued by others. I think it also keeps me fresh and has stopped me becoming jaded. It’s always a bit of a balance and I do have to juggle my diary quite carefully, but I do say no to some things and there are lots of things I would still like to do but realise I just cannot fit them all into the time available.

Are you optimistic about the future direction of science education in Scotland, and about the recruitment of science graduates into the profession?

Oh, that is a complex one to answer concisely. I think there’s lots to be positive about in Scottish science education. We have a long and good tradition on which to build, and have had an all-graduate teaching profession for decades, so there are lots of people with strong physics backgrounds teaching in Scotland.

As a small nation of around five million people, Scotland is a good size for there to be a good, well-connected, collaborative education system. There has always been a high degree of consensus in Scottish education, partly as a result of having single national bodies, such as the Scottish Qualifications Authority, being the only examination body. However, this can act against innovation and experimentation and although the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) reforms of the last decade provide a laudable vision for empowering teachers to be the masters of their own destiny, the implementation of CfE has resulted in an increasingly prescriptive curriculum and pressures that actually discourage teacher agency.

Since John Swinney, the deputy first minister, took over the education brief after the last Holyrood elections there has been a lot of positive rhetoric and targets set. However, these are to be done on such tight timescales that I fear that it is an opportunity missed to have good, informed debate and make a significant positive difference. There are developments, such as the establishment of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, which, together with the support available to science teachers from the likes of the IOP Teacher Network and Scottish Schools Education Research Centre, make me optimistic that lots of the pieces are in place to allow real positive changes in Scottish science education – provided other bits of the system do not get in the way.

The recruitment of science graduates into the profession is a concern. For many years the number of people coming into physics initial teacher education (ITE) has not been sufficient to maintain physics teacher numbers and action is needed to ensure a good supply of quality physics teachers. The amount of science in primary teacher ITE also needs to be increased to ensure primary teachers are more confident and better prepared to teach science.

What is next for you – are you about to embark on any other projects or be involved further in physics education initiatives in Scotland?

I have never really had a grand masterplan and that is the same now. I enjoy both my day job and my work on teacher CPD, with all the opportunities and different people that brings me in contact with.

This year I have started the part-time MSc course in science teacher education at the University of Oxford and am finding it really interesting. The plan is to use it to inform and enhance the CPD activities I am involved with, especially with the IOP Teacher Network. I have already found it useful for the support I am able to give the postgraduate diploma in education students from the University of Aberdeen that I have in my department this term.

Over the past 30 years I will have supported well over 50 ITE students on placement in my departments, and working with them always makes you reflect on your practice. At the start of this century I completed a part-time MBA in educational management and found it both stimulating and useful in relation to lots of aspects of the activities in which I have been involved. The work I did then on the resourcing of practical work and decision-making in schools has led to an ongoing passion for promoting effective practical work in schools and trying to overcome the barriers to this. I also still have an ongoing interest in teacher leadership and how to promote teacher agency as a result of the MBA as well as from other work I have done. I’m sure the MSc will lead on to more things that I am not able to predict.

How would you advise a physics graduate considering whether to go into teaching or to pursue other career options? What is its particular appeal?

I am more than happy to recommend teaching as a career. No two days are ever the same and you have lots of control over what you do. I think lots of people, both inside and especially outside teaching, don’t realise how much professional autonomy teachers can have.

However, teaching should not be seen as a solitary professional activity. Success comes through effective collaboration and teamworking, and in Scottish physics education at the moment there are lots of opportunities for physics teachers to collaborate and help each other.

You won’t become rich teaching, but there can be lots of job satisfaction and it is possible to make a contribution to many young lives. I would suggest anyone considering coming into teaching should visit a school for a day or two and see what it is really like.

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Heather Pinnell

Heather Pinnell

Heather is the IOP news editor, writing news for the Institute’s website and compiling a monthly e-bulletin for members. Before joining the IOP in 2005 she was a journalist specialising in education. She has a BA in English and a BSc in physics.
Heather Pinnell
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