A chance to be creative with primary science?

Written by: HTU | Published:

In 2010 science was released. It lost its SATs status and schools got the chance to be creative. But have primary science teachers got the confidence and knowledge to make the most of it? Headteacher Update considers the dilemma for the third core subject

What was your science like at primary school? A tagged-on half-hourly burst of nature study every other week or an exploration of science investigations and problem-solving? Chances are it was somewhere between the two. Science has never been an easy subject to deliver in the primary school curriculum. Required to teach it but with very little understanding themselves, many teachers stumble from one lesson to another with the notes written on their sleeve.

But should we acknowledge that it will always be the same or pick up our science skirts and go for it?

What Ofsted had to say

Successful science: An evaluation of science education in England 2007 – 2010 was published in January 2011. The report is based upon the results of visits by inspectors to 94 primary, 94 secondary and two special schools between June 2007 and March 2010.

Ofsted reports positively on the improving trend in the provision of science education, particularly in secondary schools. However, they do have some criticisms of primary schools and suggest that there are areas that need specific improvement. The removal of key stage 2 testing has helped teachers move away from intense revision in year 6 and has freed them to be more innovative. However, lack of understanding of key concepts and poor professional development in science means that they have not always made use of this opportunity.

The key findings of the report are:
- The importance of schools ensuring that pupils are engaged and challenged by their work in science – particularly through science investigation and how science works.
- A larger proportion of secondary schools than primary schools had outstanding achievement.
- There has been a slight drop in attainment at the higher levels from primary schools.
- That the characteristics of strong science departments included staff planning together and sharing good practice, rigorous monitoring and evaluation, and challenging target-setting for individual pupils.
- The quality of teaching in primary and secondary schools was good when teachers were knowledgeable about the subject and the skills being developed and knew what the pupils already knew.
- Primary teachers’ take-up of science professional development was low and was, in most cases, no better than satisfactory.
- Assessment had improved overall with greater focus on individuals rather than just the progress of the class/group as a whole.

Recommendations

The recommendations for primary schools include:
- Ensure that pupils are engaged in scientific enquiry, including practical work and are developing enquiry skills.
- Make provision for INSET in science.
- Invest in developing the role of the science co-ordinator to include developing teaching and learning in science for other members of staff.

It is quite possible that the apparent ceiling on attainment for potentially higher achieving pupils is linked to lack of confidence within the teaching workforce. Ofsted suggests that: “Limited expertise and confidence restricted the level of challenge that some teachers could provide for more academically able pupils.” This presents a worrying picture of lack of challenge and curriculum conservatism.

Ofsted is quite clear that staff development, particularly in primary schools, needs to be improved and along with it the support available from the science co-ordinator. Ofsted found that six out of 10 primary schools visited had science co-ordinators who were effective in keeping other staff up-to-date. This means that almost half were not. Not an encouraging finding when confidence is low and so much rests upon the co-ordinator’s capacity to enlighten. Co-ordinators need support and professional development themselves. It is where this will come from that could continue to blight the creative potential of science. But have we not heard this all before?

Not a new story

Ofsted’s comments will not have come as a surprise to most people. Only last year the Royal Society published Science and Mathematics Education, 5-14: A “state of the nation” report in which they came to many similar conclusions. There is a serious shortage of science and maths specialist teachers in English primary schools and primary teachers often lack confidence when it comes to teaching science. They suggest that, “the ability to teach science really well generally requires a genuine enjoyment of the subject”. That is something that no INSET can guarantee to deliver.

The Royal Society goes further than Ofsted in the scope and detail of its report. It identifies that it is lack of definitions of what is meant by a primary specialist that is partly to blame. It even proposes that there is some formal recognition or register of subject specialists to firm up the woolly perception that currently exists.

The report acknowledges the stultifying effect of the key stage 2 SATs and the freedom which teachers now feel to move away from revision and memorisation of facts to the delivery of practical learning. However, it points out that without the confidence and understanding of subject matter, primary teachers might still find this difficult to do.

The Royal Society recommendations emphasise the importance of investment in professional development for science and mathematics teachers. They recognise the government’s role in delivering this and recommend that there should be a target formulated for increasing the number of science “specialists” in English primary schools. Interestingly, the “specialist” definition may not be the same for every year group. The Royal Society report states: “The Department for Education should establish, with the support of the science and mathematics communities, a definition of ‘specialist’ that recognises the criteria for identifying specialism will change from key stage to key stage. It should then formulate both a target for increasing the numbers of science ‘specialist’ teachers in English primary schools to ensure that every child has access to a high quality science education, and invest in strategies for achieving this.”

The Royal Society suggests that the problem is something of a chicken and egg situation. The less inspiring science lessons are the fewer pupils are likely to specialise in it and become teachers in the future. In order to address this cycle they argue for a recruitment and retention programme specifically for primary teachers with science and mathematics expertise. The provision of a pool of enthusiastic specialists cannot be left to chance.

Breaking the cycle would seem to be an important requirement if science is to be brought out of the doldrums. The introduction and piloting of the Primary Science Quality Mark (PSQM) is one potential way in which this might be encouraged.

Primary Science Quality Mark

The PSQM was launched in January 2010. It is a joint venture between the Association for Science Education, the network of Science Learning Centres and Barnet Local Authority. The mark includes bronze, silver and gold levels and the application and accreditation process takes a year. The award lasts for three years.

Professional development by local experts is provided to schools engaged in the programme. Training and mentoring is a compulsory part of gaining accreditation and there are three main stages of audit, action and reflection. The process includes:
- Complete initial audit against the PSQM criteria.
- Deciding which award to aim for.
- Designing an action plan which is put into place over a period of two to three terms
- Submitting key pieces of evidence to support the submission for the selected award and to illustrate the impact of actions.

It is a tried and tested cycle for school improvement that in this case gets schools focusing clearly on their science provision.

Co-operation and collaboration between schools is an important feature and each “hub” has a leader to provide expertise and support. Achieving the mark is not just a summative judgement against criteria but an ongoing process of development that a school engages with over the year. It is a form of training in itself.

Schools’ evaluations of the award suggest that the involvement of consultants with the appropriate expertise is a key element in its success. Developing confidence in the science co-ordinator enables them to work actively with other teachers in the school to enthuse and engage them.

Ofsted is particularly complimentary of PSQM. They praise its links to science-based industry and other agencies and the extent to which it engages schools in evaluating science provision. It was not only improving results, it was improving attitude. They said: “Inspectors’ interviews with staff in the schools that participated in the initiative confirmed the improvements in teachers’ confidence and ability to teach science, with a consequent positive impact not only on pupils’ performance but also on their engagement and enjoyment.”

Government plans for training

A strong feature of the PSQM is its training focus, with development opportunities delivered locally by an expert hub leader. As such it is operating similarly to what the government proposes for its teaching schools. Teaching schools were identified in the recent Education White Paper as a method of delivering initial teacher training and professional and leadership development. They are intended to draw together outstanding teachers and leaders who will in turn support other schools in an area.

The debate must be whether the designation of teaching schools will provide this local expertise and mentoring opportunity or will it become even more difficult for teachers to access professional development in science?

Traditionally, for many schools it has been the local authority (LA) which has provided science INSET and support. However, these are uncertain times for LA development services. For example, in Warwickshire, there have been two specialist science advisors whose job it was to spread enthusiasm and expertise about science. On a commission basis they have been available for individual settings and clusters to buy in their services. They have conducted a vast range of INSET and provide advice specifically aimed at science co-ordinators.

The danger is that as LA services shrink, these advisors will take their expertise elsewhere, possible returning into schools. A benefit for the schools they work in but hardly beneficial for access and availability within the LA as a whole.

In these early stages of discussion around teaching schools it is unclear how the LA will be replaced at ground level. If the local network of expertise is made available as envisaged this might provide individual schools with the INSET they need. However, it will prohibit the overall national view of science co-ordination and specialism that the Royal Society has in mind.

The prognosis

In time, it might be that the government’s plans for training will correct the difficulties in sourcing the science expertise that primary schools need. In the meantime we could find ourselves with a gap as the provision of the past fades and the new era takes over. Hardly a beneficial moratorium likely to improve our ranking in international studies.

In the meantime, what might schools do? Taking Ofsted’s advice is a start. Perhaps aiming towards PSQM. In the end, there has always been this dilemma for primary schools. How can you be a specialist and enthusiastic about all the subjects in the national curriculum? You cannot. And now it is on to that geography report…

Further information

For more on the Primary Science Quality Mark, visit www.psqm.org.uk


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