We are reminded by Ofsted of the qualities of an effective science education in their 2013 report Maintaining Curiosity, where the best science teaching observed
- was driven by determined subject leadership that put scientific enquiry at the heart of science teaching and coupled it with substantial expertise in how pupils learn science
- set out to sustain pupils’ natural curiosity, so that they were eager to learn the subject content as well as develop the necessary investigative skills
- was informed by accurate and timely assessment of how well pupils were developing their understanding of science concepts, and their skills in analysis and interpretation so that teaching could respond to and extend pupils’ learning.
But regrettably not all primary schools, and probably not even the majority, are offering this quality of experience to their children regularly. The reasons are well documented in the Wellcome Trust’s 2014 report Primary Science: is it missing out?, and the CBI’s Tomorrow’s World: inspiring primary scientists in 2015. At the heart of this lie issues of leadership and accountability. Taking the pressure off science by the removal of statutory tests at the end of primary education in England in 2009 was a move generally welcomed by the science community to address concerns that science teaching had become defined and restricted by those tests. But it resulted in leaders taking broadly two different approaches to science.
Some enthusiastically embraced the new opportunities and freedom to enrich their pupils’ science experience, particularly through practical, enquiry-led teaching.
Others – often those in leadership positions – disappointingly perceived science as less important than the other core subjects of English and mathematics; a tendency noted in the Cambridge Primary Review’s final report. This situation continues today in many schools. In over half the schools visited in Ofsted’s 2013 review, the leaders ‘no longer saw science as a priority’ and its status has declined visibly. In those schools, science has become the poor relation.
This results in an all too familiar picture in these schools: a lack of planning for learning, unclear ideas about what achievement looks like that can be shared and understood by children, inadequate monitoring of the quality of science teaching and a lack of time and resources allocated to it, and little commitment to subject-focused professional development.
Whilst whole school priorities as a focus for professional development are important, research in 2014 by the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education indicates that pupils are more likely to benefit from subject focused professional development because it changes teachers’ practices by making links between professional learning and pupil learning explicit. This is particularly relevant to primary science where teachers frequently report that they lack confidence in their science subject knowledge to be able to provide their children with the inspirational experience that they seek. The number of primary teachers who may describe themselves in this way is potentially very large – estimates from the Campaign for Science and Engineering in 2015 indicate that only 5% of primary teachers have a science related degree – and for these teachers (in post and in initial teacher education), opportunities to engage with subject-focused professional development will be particularly important and valued. This is especially significant while the new curriculum in England is being implemented, with its increased emphasis on working scientifically, and on different types of enquiry with which teachers are not yet familiar.
This is not a time to be complacent. Putting efforts into planning an effective, rich and actively engaging primary science curriculum that embraces working scientifically – with opportunities to develop, use and apply children’s mathematical and literacy knowledge and skills at its core – will pay dividends. Research by King’s College London’s Aspires project reported in 2013 that by the time young people reach secondary school, they may already have disengaged with science.
But let’s not forget that science is in a strong position, with a vibrant community that offers a vast range of opportunities for leaders and teachers to take charge of their own professional learning journey and to make the most of primary science in their schools. More than any other subject, science has supporters in industry, charitable foundations and learned societies, all keen to help teachers to make primary science a stimulating and rewarding experience for all children. These opportunities include enrichment initiatives from the Royal Society partnership grants and the British Science Association, membership of the Association for Science Education (ASE), professional development through the National Science Learning Network, recognition of one’s own achievements through Chartered Science Teacher (CSciTeach) or the Primary Science Teacher Awards, and the achievements of your school through Primary Science Quality Mark (PSQM).
Taking advantage of these opportunities, there are numerous examples of inspirational science taking place across the country, commonly supported and championed by strong and insightful leaders who recognise the value of reflective professional development and the opportunities to learn from, and contribute to, the many thriving networks of those who are passionate about primary science – including members of CPRT’s Schools Alliance – and who understand the important contribution of science to wider school priorities, culture and ethos.
Cathy Dean, assistant headteacher at Queen Edith Primary School in Cambridge, a member of CPRT’s Schools Alliance with Gold PSQM, comments
‘Queen Edith was motivated to work towards PSQM because of the range of science already being completed in school and we felt that this should be celebrated. The year we completed the PSQM coincided with a Science and Technology Learning Saturday. For this event a working group helped to recruit members of the local community (including parents, university staff and other professionals) to come in and run workshops throughout the day for children and their parents.
We had a very positive response from children, parents and volunteers, and have then used some of those links to enrich our curriculum for future teaching. Completing the PSQM allowed the science subject leader to dedicate time to think about resources and teaching of science in the school and how this could be enhanced. Resources were reorganised and distributed, allowing science lessons to be practical and exciting. Staff meeting time was also dedicated to enhancing the science curriculum. It allowed the science subject leader to work closely with science leaders from other schools, enabling them to share ideas, resources and contacts.’
For this school, and many others, science is certainly not the poor relation.
Marianne Cutler is Co-Director of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust and Director of Curriculum Innovation at the Association for Science Education.
We’d like to hear from you about the place of science education in your school. Has the new curriculum fostered a different approach? Have you taken advantage of some of the opportunities mentioned here (or any others) to develop your school’s expertise in science education? Please let us know your experience by commenting below.