The challenges facing primary science education

Written by: Deborah Roberts | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Primary science education faces some key challenges since it was overhauled in the national curriculum reforms, including questions over how well ‘working like a scientist’ is promoted and how confident teachers are to deliver lessons. Deborah Roberts explains

In 2013 the government released its plans to make changes to the primary national curriculum. For most of the children in the UK this resulted in them following the new curriculum from September 2014.

Pupils in years 2 and 6 followed the old programmes of study for English, maths and science until September 2015, while pupils in the other year groups started the new programmes from September 2014. This created some confusion for parents, pupils and teachers alike, particularly for parents with children in different year groups.

The content of the new curriculum didn’t change a great deal when compared to the old one. For example, pupils still studied plants and animals in addition to forces and magnetism. Seasonal changes remained but switched key stages.

In an effort to provide flexibility and to accommodate restraints on equipment and timetables, the order that the content was to be delivered in was not tightly specified. For example the content in key stage 1 should be delivered by the end of that key stage but is not allocated to a specific year group.

This is also supportive when delivering seasonal changes or observing the life-cycle of a plant. Allowing schools to split these units enables the children to make observations at different times of the year. This can only support the pupils in appreciating science in the world around them and how observations can be made outside of the classroom in daily life.

Unfortunately, some leaders and curriculum managers have found this flexibility daunting, as it is not so easy to manage the national curriculum content when teachers are delivering it differently over a key stage.

We have to recognise and accept that not all teachers perceive themselves as science specialists or claim to be confident in the delivery of the science curriculum.

As a result many published schemes have been purchased by our primary schools to improve the confidence that all of the objectives are effectively delivered.

As a consultant in primary science I have the privilege of visiting and working with numerous primary providers. When mapping the national curriculum against some of these published curriculum resources it is alarming that the key content is not always covered and opportunities for promoting working like a scientist are often lacking.

At best in some of the examples I have worked with, the science is skimmed over with little in depth science being taught. The topic and themed approach is advertised as being designed to offer “a broad and balanced skills and knowledge-based curriculum”.

One of the popular published curriculum advertises that their resources are written by teachers and leaders for teachers to use confidently in primary schools. One could argue that the main force for purchasing such resources is that trusted specialists in their field have developed them. My research does not always provide evidence to support this belief.

An additional problem with a particular resource I have analysed is that the time allocated to specific science content teaching is also inconsistent where some children may not learn any science across a year group and often, key stage. This is alarming and is a massive injustice to some children in primary science.

There are opportunities for science to be delivered in conjunction with the themes that are outlined in these schemes but unless a keen or experienced teacher can easily identify these they are often overlooked. Primary teachers are generally very good at recognising opportunities to teach different skills and concepts, but I have found that there are fewer and fewer confident enough to do this in science. The reduced profile and therefore time allocated to science over recent years has compounded this problem by deskilling and thus reducing confidence further.

For several years the Department for Education (DfE) has discussed and advertised its desire to raise the profile of science, especially in primary schools where the curriculum has increasingly narrowed. We are encouraged to invest teaching time into the development of key skills that can be transferred across subjects and used throughout life.

I have researched this method of teaching for approximately 15 years. I have carried out pilot schemes in numerous schools and witnessed first and second hand the impact that this style of teaching can have on learning and ultimately assessment data.

Most pupils I have worked with enjoy learning the key skills involved, for example communicating, analysing and researching while learning specific content. This is in line with the new science curriculum at key stage 4. The primary curriculum taught as a blend of science skills and content acts as a sound and realistic foundation to secondary science.

As a passionate teacher and committed trainer I found the discussions around the new primary science curriculum exciting and, in conjunction with the changes at key stages 3 and 4, the beginning of a new era for science.

It has been a surprise then to see that the curriculum document is physically divided into a working like a scientist unit and then the content units. The additional notes on the curriculum document explain that “working like a scientist” should be taught in conjunction with the content. Again can non-scientist teachers and curriculum mappers easily and efficiently apply this?

For example, I carried out some consultancy work in a very good school with an extremely organised management team. They had mapped the curriculum objectives to their schemes of learning and highlighted any objectives that they felt would not be covered effectively. The majority of these fell into the working scientifically unit – with questioning identified as a key problem area.

We know from research that teachers ask hundreds of questions in a day and from experience of children that they too ask questions of us, and the world around them. As a result I found this a surprise and a concern.

The explanation was that they currently didn’t have a lesson planned that was specifically directed at this key skill – questioning. It had been omitted as they had found it a problem to design a full lesson around questioning. This is evidence that separating the skills from the main content is not always translated well enough to result in the intended outcome of the national curriculum.

Some schools visited did not deliver any science on a regular basis. Others had a policy that directed a given time solely to science but also specified a particular purchased curriculum that did not teach any science in some of the topics. As a result science was often ignored or at best skimmed over. In my experience the teachers are aware of this and would like nothing better than to address it.

To complicate things further the Phase 2 curriculum research carried out last year by Ofsted has identified primary science as a key “theme” for the new Ofsted framework to be launched in September 2019. This has not come as a surprise to primary science colleagues as Ofsted has commented on the focus and priority placed on maths and English in recent years. As a result leaders in primary science are trying to pre-empt what exactly the theme of primary science is.

A great deal of discussion is around the research carried out in the 23 schools selected by Ofsted’s research. Here curriculum managers discussed how they had mapped the curriculum and whether their focus was skills or content. The question arises as to why are we discussing this issue. Are we teaching skills alongside the content as encouraged at key stage 4 or are we now separating them as initially discussed and encouraged at key stages 1 and 2.

This brings to mind the work of Matt Bromley (SecEd, 2018) who highlights the lack of communication at transition points and how in some subjects a completely different language is used to describe key content.

I strongly urge that we provide continuity and consistency, to allow children to build on their knowledge and avoid learning a new language at every transition point. We now have a situation where some curriculum managers are being encouraged to select their method of delivering the national curriculum.

Surely a consistent approach would allow schools to share resources and information. I am not an advocate of weighing the animal continuously to make it gain weight, but being realistic it is useful to compare pupils from school to school. If they are all learning in a completely different way this cannot be achieved successfully.

This is a golden opportunity to overhaul science education and we could monitor it effectively with the use of the new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework (EIF). Teachers, pupils, carers and employers have been aware that the science curriculum was in need of close examination and reconstruction for a number of reasons including to address the ever narrowing of the curriculum as we taught to test.

In addition here in the UK we are no longer leading in STEM internationally. The uptake of science at key stage 5 and beyond is in decline. We know that most children make the decision about their future career or field by year 9. We also know that Ofsted cited key stage 3 as being the “wasted years” in education in its well-known report (September 2015). So let’s not once again miss another opportunity to address this by planning lessons that are restricted and driven by content alone with the ultimate outcome of terminal assessments. Instead let’s also develop skills and new opportunities to practise them.

In addition to broadening horizons by introducing opportunities to research and learn about the real world, pupils could leave key stage 2 with a love of science and the knowledge of how it fits comfortably into the real world. They could develop this further with the skills equipping them to be independent thinkers with a deeper intellectual knowledge of the world around them.

As educators we should embrace the new curriculum at primary level and invest in future STEM leaders through the provision of reliable training and CPD and to develop resources that can be used confidently to skill and enthuse pupils through challenging learning experiences.

Let’s work with Ofsted to use its input to measure and monitor the learning taking place in our classrooms. We should be investing in understanding what Ofsted is really looking for.
At the time of writing it appears that Ofsted recognises that there are key skills and knowledge to be learned in all subjects and that teaching is not simply about getting the best marks possible in assessments.

In its consultation on the EIF, Ofsted is telling us that they will not just take into account assessment data but the learning that is taking place about the world and how our children intend to fit into it. Ofsted has made it clear that it does not want to work against schools but to work with them as a critical friend.

Primary managers should be planning for the new Ofsted framework now so that they are ready and prepared. By training our pupils to use skills to find out about the world they will gain knowledge and be equipped to make sense of it confidently with the acquisition of a deeper intellectual understanding. 

  • Deborah Roberts is an international consultant, trainer and published author.

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