A new President for the YPS, 2018

A new President for the YPS: Sir John Holman

Carole Smith

The YPS, long fortunate in its many very distinguished past members and presidents, is now in the happy position of having as its new president someone who is not only distinguished but who embodies in particular the Society’s chief interest: promoting the public understanding of science.

Sir John Holman probably needs no introduction to the many professional teachers and ex-teachers in the Society. A teacher of long-standing himself, he has been responsible over the last thirty-odd years for many developments in science education, including as an adviser to government. Sir John also helped design the National Curriculum for Science, and was disappointed that it was never properly piloted. Science teachers will know Salter’s Advanced Chemistry, which he edited; they will be aware of the National Science Learning Centre, established by the White Rose Consortium of universities in 2004; they may have read his reports Good Career Guidance and Good Practical Science, published by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation.

As a very young graduate, straight after Cambridge (Gonville & Caius) and untrained, John’s first experience of teaching was at Radley College, the independent boys’ boarding school in Oxfordshire. He was given a syllabus and told to get on with it. While he enjoyed it, liked the children and found it rewarding, he wanted to move into the public sector. For that he needed to get a teaching diploma and after PGCE, he went to teach at Bristol Grammar School.

He moved on to Watford Grammar School for Boys where, as teacher and head of department from 1984 to 1994, he was able, with external funding, to spend half his time out of school, at the University of York, researching ideas about science education, and developing new curricula. That led to thinking about the best ways to introduce a difficult subject to resistant pupils, especially the idea of basing teaching on children’s natural interest in their surroundings, and helping them to learn by doing. One topic in Salters Advanced Chemistry was hydrocarbons which was introduced through the practical problems associated with the transportation of fuels.

He gave up that somewhat blessed form of employment mixed with research when he became Headteacher of the school, which he regards as the hardest yet most satisfying job of any he has ever done. It was rewarding but permitted of no outside endeavours. He returned to a more research-based position in 2000 when he was offered the Chair of Chemical Education at the University of York, a position part-sponsored by Salters. Here he taught physical chemistry and also led the Science Education Group.

In 2003, as a result of a joint initiative with government, the Wellcome Trust offered to provide half the cost of setting up a network of Science Learning Centres, with its hub, the National Science Learning Centre, at York. Sir John led the bid for the multi-million pound project on behalf of the universities of Leeds, Sheffield Hallam and York – the White Rose Consortium – and won. He became the founding director of the York centre and established the first dedicated, residential professional science-teaching development centre. It offered short one-day or, more typically, three-day residential courses to science teachers to improve their subject knowledge and their ability to teach. One course was even for aspiring heads of science. The courses were free, owing to funding from three sources: a consortium of businesses, the Wellcome Trust, and government.

Sir John’s involvement with government and government policy-making increased, and in 2006 he became the National STEM Director with a remit to coordinate STEM teaching (science, technology, engineering and maths). The National Science Learning Centre is now called the National STEM Centre. He was knighted and retired from the Centre in 2010, but instead of sitting back on some well-earned laurels, he remains an emeritus professor at York, he is an adviser to a number of organisations, notably the Gatsby Foundation and the Wellcome Trust; he is a trustee of the Natural History Museum; immediate past president of the Royal Society of Chemistry; Honorary Fellow of the BAAS (the old name remains: BSA is its working title); and he continues to speak at conferences on subjects of interest – a recent one being “Chemistry and Trust”, that is, how to achieve mutual trust between scientists and the public.

His work has been recognised in other ways. In 2014 he was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Lord Lewis Prize for his influence over chemistry education policy, and also won the Royal Society’s Kavli Education Medal for his significant impact on science education in the UK. Also in 2014 he was named by the Science Council as one of the one hundred leading practising and inspirational scientists.

We are proud to welcome him to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society as our new President.