Practical science at KS2

Written by: Dan Sullivan | Published:
Photo: Empiribox Primary Science Trust

What are the main challenges when delivering effective practical science at key stage 2? Dan Sullivan takes a look

The fundamental issue in teaching science effectively is that, to develop the skills of thinking and problem-solving, which are difficult to learn, pupils need to undertake regular, challenging and focused practical science throughout their primary and secondary schooling.

However, in 2009, science was removed from the key stage 2 statutory assessments schedule, largely because it had unfortunately led to children simply being taught a long list of facts that they were encouraged to regurgitate – this is not science!

As the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman remarked, science is about how to think and solve problems, not learn all the names of birds and trees.

In the past five years, a variety of reports from the likes of the Royal Society, Ofsted and the CBI, all stated clearly that science was "not happening" as it should in the primary sector, but they largely neglected to say "how" it could be improved.

As the head of science in four London secondary schools, I regularly had the opportunity to visit primary schools, observe science lessons and chat to primary colleagues. As a result, I would like to offer a few observations about the challenges of delivering effective science lessons for primary schools. Why bother?

First, all primary schools have a statutory duty to provide two hours per week of high-quality science lessons within their curriculum plan.

Every school is duty bound to ensure its charges become real independent learners who can challenge received wisdom. Science, taught effectively, is one subject discipline that has this as its core outcome.

Children are inherently inquisitive and curious, so providing a regular rich diet of practical experimentation is entirely in keeping with their innate passions and interests.

Furthermore, there are plenty of cross-curricular links with literacy and maths – in reality, science is simply mathematics dressed in more interesting clothes and "wow" science lessons are a great vehicle for use in developing literacy through verbal reasoning, descriptive writing and poetry.

Budgetary constraints

Chalk and talk is not an effective way of teaching and learning science – it does not develop interactive, problem-solving skills or give pupils the ability to manipulate equipment that is at the core of "science" (in the same way that actually speaking French or German is the objective of French and German lessons).

Science is most effectively learnt "practically" by pupils working in pairs, every week of the year, during lessons that have a clear focus on a single aspect of science methodology. However, this is expensive to deliver. In order to teach any discipline there are a few essentials:

  • A scheme of work and lesson plans.
  • Physical resources and ICT resources.
  • Books, or at least access to them.

For science, this means:

  • A scheme of work – typically £200 per year group, or £1,200 per school.
  • Lesson plans – these have to be written by the teachers or bought separately at an average cost per year group of around £1,000 every two to three years.
  • Physical resources – assuming each year group studies a different topic each half-term, this is 36 different "themes" for which resources are required every year (for children to work in pairs wherever possible), many of which are consumables that have to be replaced after each lesson.

Assuming a spend of at least £20 per lesson for 30 pupils in each class, this works out at a minimum of £4,320 per year.

Other considerations include ICT resources – the breadth, scope and variety of online or other electronic science teaching resources is quite staggering and can vary in cost from £20 to £2,000. There is a huge range of science books available too, but schools face the eternal problem of which books to buy to support their teaching, meaning a school could easily spend over £1,000 for suitable texts.

Teacher confidence

At estimated 97 per cent of primary teachers are non-scientists and only slightly more have an A level in science. Science is a notoriously difficult subject to teach well and consistently if one does not have a secure subject knowledge – uninspiring schemes of work and a lack of adequate resources with which to teach can be a real challenge and consequently, instead of something to look forward to, science lessons are often dreaded.

Primary school pupils are naturally inquisitive. However, if the majority of their lessons involve didactic teaching, lots of interactive whiteboard work and little hands-on activity, this often leads to disengagement, challenging behaviour and poor progress.

Delivery and assessment challenges

Most primary schools deliver the science curriculum across key stage 2 by teaching the relevant sections from their chosen scheme of work in discrete half-termly chunks that match the national curriculum topics. However, this does not permit effective progression in the learning of each topic, even if the topic is revisited in a later year.

Assessment in science at key stage 2 has been a consistent point of issue over the last 10 years with little effective guidance being given to schools.

Most specifically the assessment of key stage 2 "science skills" has always been a major area of variation and lack of consistency with schools using a huge range of assessment packages and procedures to attempt to show progression in their pupils' science skills.

Suggested solutions

Science can be used to develop cross-curricular links across the whole school, enabling maths and English lessons to draw upon rich science activities to engage pupils with creative-writing, robust debating and reasoning skills, using evidence they have generated from their experiments.

In addition, one of the most valuable of all maths skills – identifying and justifying patterns in data – is effortlessly done through analysis and discussion of data and numbers that pupils have generated through their own investigations.

There are also opportunities to create further links to design technology, art, music, history and geography lessons.

To achieve high-quality results and deliver an effective science curriculum, a realistic budget for an average single-form entry, based upon the observations above, should be at least £5,000 per year. This would adequately provide for:

  • At least one decent staff science teaching CPD day annually for all teachers and associated teaching assistants in key stage 2.
  • A wide range of science equipment sufficient for all pupils to work in pairs.
  • ICT science teaching support licences.
  • Science teaching support literature.
  • Science assessment software/licences.

This budget can be allocated from several components of a school's budget, including training, learning resources across several subjects and use of Pupil Premium (and sometimes PTA funding) to maximize the cross-curricular impact.

Secondary links

When planning the yearly science provision, it is a good idea to involve the head of science from a secondary school partner. They, after all, specialise in teaching science.

Secondary heads of departments are used to creating science curriculum plans with resources available from catalogues and other retailers and can suggest exciting and interesting investigations and equipment.

Stage 1: contact the headteacher of your preferred local secondary school and arrange for the head of science or science advanced skills teacher, if there is one, to be granted a few days release to assist with the design of your school curriculum.

Stage 2: the head of department or advanced skills teacher could then be engaged to undertake the following tasks:

  • Designing a curriculum map for the school.
  • Creating a costed equipment list to meet the provision of this curriculum provision.
  • Discussing and agreeing a schedule of staff INSET training where she/he will come into the school on a termly basis to provide high-quality CPD guidance on ways to use the equipment and the science behind it.

There is a huge incentive for secondary science heads of departments to engage in this kind of support, because they will be able to better guide pupils' preparation for transition over four years, rather than a quick "science basting in year 6" that rarely has any value.

  • Dan Sullivan is managing and education director of Empiribox Primary Science Trust C.I.C. He is a former head of secondary school science.

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