Bioethics education in England: going backwards or forwards?

Over this autumn school term, members of our Education Advisory Group are sharing thoughts and ideas based on their own experience of how bioethics and debate can be useful in education contexts. This post is written by Michael J Reiss, Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.

I joined the Nuffield Council on Bioethics Reaching Out to Young People Group (now the Education Advisory Group) at its inception ten years ago. But what is the current state of bioethics education in England? Are things getting better or worse?

On the plus side, we now have many more high quality resources than we used to, not a few of them the result of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ own work. Such resources are being used in science lessons, in RE lessons and in a number of other subject areas. Furthermore, bioethics itself remains prominent in media debates. There are such perennial questions as the acceptability of animal experiments and newer issues such as three-parent babies, neuro-enhancers and badger culling as a control measure for bovine TB.

But these positive developments have probably been outweighed by the negative ones. One negative development was the decision back in 2011 to exclude religious education (RE) from the English Baccalaureate. Despite claims at the time (which fooled no one in the know) that this should not disadvantage RE, GCSE entries have fallen, the government has slashed the number of teacher training places for RE students and continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities have diminished. Now is not a great time to be an RE teacher.

In some respects now is a great time to be a science teacher. The present Coalition government has continued to promote the line taken by the previous Labour government that this country’s prosperity depends on more students choosing to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. If you choose to train to become a science or mathematics teacher you are likely (depending on the class of your first degree) to get a hefty bursary.

However, this government’s revisions to the National Curriculum mean that the role of ethics in science risks being downgraded. Precisely what will happen remains to be seen once we have the first new GCSE specifications and sample assessment materials published. But the latest science National Curriculum has less on ethics than the previous version. It’s not that teachers aren’t meant to teach such material; it’s that the content of such teaching is largely left up to teachers.

This is a great opportunity – and allows for the possibility of examples being chosen that are topical and meaningful for students. But it is also a risk. Many busy science teachers are likely to concentrate on the core parts of the science National Curriculum. This would be a great loss. Bioethics engages many students. It can help them to understand science better and it can motivate some to want to continue to study the subject post-16.

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