Ofsted subject review: A focus on science

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
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Ofsted has begun publishing its series of subject reports, with science the first discipline under scrutiny. Suzanne O’Connell considers the report’s main messages (and warnings) for primary schools

Finding the optimum – Ofsted’s first subject report based on inspectors’ findings from deep dives carried out during school inspections – was published last term (Ofsted, 2023a).

Of course, this is not the first time that Ofsted has become involved in writing reports about the teaching of individual subjects. Previously, these were called thematic reports and schools were visited by inspectors specifically to investigate how the subject under question was being taught.

However, between 2021 and 2023, Ofsted has published 11 subject-themed “research reviews”, drawing upon the available evidence to “support and inform those leading the thinking on subject education in our schools” (Ofsted, 2021a).

The intention now is to follow up these reports with a new series of subject reports evaluating what inspectors find in schools during their subject “deep dives” and reviewing practice against the research review findings.

The initial research review on science education was published in April 2021 (Ofsted, 2021b) and sections of text included in the subject report refer to the findings of the review.

It is anticipated that subject reports across all 11 subjects will be published in due course. If the chronological order of the research reviews is to be followed, then we can expect the next subject reports to look at religious education and maths, whose reviews were published in May 2021 (see Ofsted, 2023b).

Overall messages from inspectors

The report covers both primary and secondary education. However, based on the inspection visits to primary schools, it finds that a significant amount of work has been done by schools on the science curriculum.

Some schools have bought-in commercial curricula and continuity between the school’s existing reception content and published year 1 material has sometimes been a concern.

The emphasis is very much on having a “tight” framework with very clear concepts about what pupils should learn and why, rather than exclusively focusing on “making science relevant and fun”.

Science leaders should identify clearly what they want pupils to know and do at each stage and not just refer to the high-level statement from the national curriculum.

The curriculum should not be organised around practical activities or scientific enquiries for their own sake. Instead, schools should focus on the disciplinary knowledge pupils should learn and then select the best activities to teach it.

The report warns against “cognitive overload” and teaching too many key concepts at the same time. Likewise, schools should be careful not to provide overly technical vocabulary before pupils have learnt the necessary foundational knowledge.

And finally, inspectors warn that science time in schools needs to be protected as it is a core subject. There is notable criticism of schools which leave science out of the timetable for too long – for example in some schools, science is not taught for an entire half-term.

Overall, the report states: “Where science was strong, pupils had learned detailed and connected knowledge of the curriculum and remembered what they had learned previously. In a significant minority of schools, pupils were not developing secure knowledge of science. Often, in these schools, the focus was on covering the content, rather than ensuring it was learned, or completing practical activities.”

Different types of knowledge

The terms “substantive” and “disciplinary” knowledge are now part of the day-to-day vocabulary of schools and are woven into the research reviews and now also into the subject reports.

Substantive knowledge refers to factual scientific knowledge such as the parts of a flower or the names of the planets. Disciplinary knowledge is that used in order to conduct experiments and the understanding of working scientifically and its concepts.

The science research review outlines four content areas for pupils to learn as they move from year to year:

  • Methods that scientists use to answer questions.
  • Apparatus and technique, including measurement.
  • Data analysis.
  • How science uses evidence to develop explanations.

It concludes that some teachers do not have sufficiently high expectations of what students can learn – for example, not expecting the lesson outcomes to be achieved by SEND pupils. Pre-teaching, building up explanations slowly and providing additional scaffolding were all referred to favourably in the report.

Practical work

The subject report refers to practical work as either hands-on practical activity or teacher demonstration. Whole-class practical activities in primary schools consisted of:

  • Helping pupils learn substantive knowledge – e.g. using torches and different materials to learn about opacity and transparency (this was most common).
  • Helping pupils learn disciplinary knowledge – e.g. exploring the relationships between hand length and foot length or developing the disciplinary knowledge of correlation.
  • Helping pupils learn substantive and disciplinary knowledge – e.g. carrying out a scientific enquiry to find out how waterproof different materials are. Pupils developed their knowledge of materials and control variables in fair tests.

The report points out that there were problems when pupils did not have sufficient prior knowledge or vocabulary to conduct the experiment or talk about it. Inspectors saw relatively few practical demonstrations, the use of which they say could save both costs and time.

And according to the report, SEND pupils do not necessarily benefit from learning through practical activities.


Both the research review and the subject report refer to assessment for learning – using assessment to provide feedback, check that pupils have learnt what was intended, and identify if there are any misconceptions or gaps in their knowledge. This includes questions and quizzes or written feedback. The report warns that there were often inconsistencies in the written feedback provided and it was sometimes too general.

The report also refers to assessment as learning, the embedding of knowledge in the memory, and assessment of learning, checking whether curricular goals been achieved.

The report warns: “In some schools, assessment as learning was sometimes taking place at the expense of assessment for learning. Some pupils were asked to recall knowledge that they had not successfully learned first time around.

“Some pupils did not have sufficient opportunities to practise and consolidate what they learned before moving on to new content. This meant they did not remember key content taught previously.”

And it adds: “Generally, assessment in science did not check whether pupils had remembered what they had learned in previous years. This was a particular concern in some primary schools, where generalised judgements at the end of a piece of learning were being made against age-related expectations, but what these grades represented in relation to the curriculum was not clear.”

Inspectors also criticised the lack of CPD in some schools and science leaders’ uncertainty about what teachers would benefit from when it comes to their CPD.

Subject leadership

The amount of time provided for science leaders varied enormously between schools from two hours a week to an hour a term. Concern is expressed in the report about the lack of time made available and the lack of additional support. There also needs to be more liaison between primary and secondary science departments to make sure that material isn’t unnecessarily repeated.

Ofsted’s recommendations

  • Science should be taught regularly and pupils should have opportunity to build on their knowledge – don’t leave it untaught for half a term.
  • Ensure that disciplinary knowledge is covered as well as substantive knowledge – it’s not just about doing experiments but how scientific concepts are taught and build upon each other.
  • Make sure that there is sufficient time for practising and consolidating – pupils should have secure knowledge before moving on.
  • Make sure that content in reception is sufficiently clearly identified and links into year 1.
  • Assessment in science needs to check that pupils have remembered what they have learned in previous years – assessment should include both substantive and disciplinary knowledge.
  • Science subject leaders should have dedicated leadership time and subject leadership training.
  • Keep an awareness of connections – pupils should be helped to build connected knowledge and should take account of other subjects, such as mathematics.
  • Identify misconceptions and address these in your planning and teaching.

Ofsted is not expected to advocate a particular method of planning, teaching or assessment, yet the research reviews and subject reports seem to be dipping a toe into this water. There is a disclaimer that “findings from this report will not be used as a tick-list” by inspectors, but subject leaders are well-advised to be aware of the contents and to consider how their science curriculum matches against the key factors.

Final thought

Whereas the scientific community seems to be happy with the science research review, the same cannot be said for all subject areas.

The Association of Mathematics Education Teachers has challenged the research-base used in the maths review and the English and Media Centre has concerns including “unsubstantiated claims for the role of grammar” at the expense of research into the teaching of poetry, drama, creative writing, media or non-fiction texts in the English review. So we wait to see what the response to those subject reports will be...

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Headteacher Update Summer Term Edition 2023

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Summer Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via www.headteacher-update.com/digital-editions/

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