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Keep the scientific fires of enthusiasm burning

John Stringer says gains in primary science must be carried through

One of the surprises of the 1989 national curriculum was that science had core subject status alongside English and mathematics.

This rating might have been explained at that Thatcherite time by a view of scientists as wealth-creators - that meant science education had a utilitarian function.

But over the 14 years since, the development of the literacy and numeracy strategies has seen primary science decline in status. In 2001, primary schools spent, on average, 27 per cent of their teaching time on English, 22 per cent on maths and only 11 per cent on science.

Nevertheless, in the words of a recent "Postnote" from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, "The Government now views primary science as a success". This recognition comes with a proviso, however. There is "concern outside government that advances made in the early years are in danger of being lost". Why is this?

First, look at the success criteria. Science test results have been consistently better than for English and maths. Even the increased emphasis on scientific enquiry in last summer's Sats did not have the negative impact many feared.

The Office for Standards in Education has reported that initial teacher training in primary science is very effective, and primary teachers'

subject knowledge - long a cause of anxiety - is widely recognised as having improved.

Next autumn, a network of science learning centres for teachers will open.

So why the caution in celebrating the success of primary science?

One reason is the unintended effects of the science Sats. While once you could be confident that children's enthusiasm for science remained high throughout the primary years, Ofsted now finds that many teachers are understandably narrowing the curriculum during Year 6 to concentrate on Sats revision.

The refocusing of last summer's tests on scientific enquiry, rather than on knowledge, was a step towards discouraging factual cramming.

But many teachers still feel under pressure to emphasise factual content.

Many schools do not adapt the science scheme of work to their own circumstances and their pupils' individual needs.

Despite the improvement in primary teachers' science knowledge, some are still working at the limit of their understanding - especially in the physical sciences. And there is concern that the nature and purpose of scientific enquiry may not be understood by all.

Teaching in science can be more didactic than in other subjects. Techniques and approaches learned through the literacy and numeracy strategies are being effectively applied in science, so that its teaching has demonstrably improved over the past five years.

But the same strategies have reduced the time schools spend on science. So what can be done?

The Government could act to reduce or change the impact of Sats on primary science teaching. In Wales, testing at seven has been abolished and testing at 11 is under review. But abolition might reduce the status of science even more.

The amendment of Sats to reflect the importance of scientific enquiry is a step in the right direction. And the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is about to publish new guidance to strengthen teacher assessment.

School managers must be encouraged to see science as a priority, and time and resources found to adapt the curriculum to local needs and children's interests.

Increased training opportunities would raise the confidence and quality of primary science teachers - especially curriculum leaders and co-ordinators.

More importantly, closer ties between primary and secondary schools would smooth the transition in science education.

It is significant that in its projects to improve transition, the DfES has concentrated on secondary science. Ministers want to reduce the falling enthusiasm for the subject among primary pupils once they transfer to secondary.

It would be ironic if primary science lost ground while secondary science took off. Just as the most successful pupils in a class do not always get the attention they deserve, primary science could be in danger of neglect.

www.parliament.ukpost Postnote 202, September 2003

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