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Critical mass has still to be reached;Science;News

Neil Munro and David Henderson summarise the three major reports from HMI that were published last week

EVIDENCE from home and abroad shows that, although there are strengths in science teaching in Scottish schools, there are also "significant areas of concern" especially in upper primary and lower secondary.

HMI's report on Improving Science 5-14 states that despite publication of the 5-14 guidelines on environmental studies in 1993 many pupils "are not yet receiving the full range of intended experiences or achieving the anticipated standards".

The Standards and Quality report, covering 1995-98, found that pupil attainment was unsatisfactory or had important weaknesses in 49 per cent of primaries and 37 per cent of secondaries in S1-S2. These findings were confirmed in the 1996 science survey from the Assessment of Achievement Programme and the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

Further concern emerged from inspections carried out during 1995-98 which showed important weaknesses or unsatisfactory courses in 58 per cent of primaries and 32 per cent of secondaries at S1-S2; only 5 per cent of primary programmes and 8 per cent of S1-S2 courses were considered to be very good.

The report addresses the familiar theme of primary teachers' lack of confidence in handling science, expressed by 12 per cent of staff in the 1995 research council report compared with 71 per cent who were fully confident in teaching English and maths. The inspectors say that, despite recent initiatives and some slight improvements, "the critical breakthrough has not yet been achieved in improving teachers' confidence and competence".

Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, pledged that the Scottish Executive would look more closely at primary staff development needs in science. This would follow the review of 5-14 science being carried out by the curriculum council which aims to simplify existing guidelines.

HMI's report also promises teachers additional support, including national assessment materials which would help in the planning of pupils' learning.

The inspectors found that science teaching was not well planned or designed to develop scientific awareness, there were few opportunities for pupils to develop scientific skills, work in class was often undemanding and repetitive, and topics rarely related to pupils' experience of science outside school including what they watched on television.

Their report says "many teachers spend too much time managing worksheets and other resources and too little time engaged in direct teaching of pupils. As a result, pupils work too slowly and spend too much time copying information and carrying out time-filling and unchallenging activities such as 'colouring in, cutting out and pasting down' at the expense of the teaching of investigative and thinking skills."

Primary schools integrated too many subjects in the topic-based approach used in environmental studies, the report states, which meant the science content was lost. Despite the deficiencies, the inspectors have not suggested removing science from environmental studies. They do, however, want schools to ensure pupils know that there are separate scientific, historical and geographical components by the time they leave primary school.

The report suggests that more use could be made of visiting specialist science teachers and secondary science staff to bolster primary teaching.

Very good teaching was found where:

5-14 guidelines were followed.

There was a clear framework of what should be covered at each stage to ensure continuity and progression in learning.

A good balance of topics existed as well as a clear focus on the teaching of scientific knowledge, understanding and skills.

Direct teaching and practical work were prominent.

Agreement was established between primary schools and their local secondary about the ground to be covered in science before pupils started in S1.

Secondary science teachers built on pupils' primary learning.

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