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Pupils still struggling with science

Specialist teaching is failing to improve classroom standards, says Neil Munro

The 5-14 programme on which the Government has pinned so much is failing to improve pupils' performance in science by the time they reach Secondary 2.

The fourth survey of science by the Government's Assessment of Achievement Programme (AAP), was published with no ceremony this week, but it confirms yet again that "there is cause for concern at S2 in all aspects tested".

The survey, which tested 6,500 pupils at three of the key 5-14 stages in 1996, provides gloomy evidence of the parlous state of science teaching, highlighted last year in the Third International Maths and Science Study.

Performance was said to be good at Primary 4, but only fair at Primary 7. Knowledge of these findings undoubtedly prompted Brian Wilson's announcement last month of a review of 5-14 science. The Education Minister's decision is strongly recommended in the AAP report.

Harvey Stalker, the chief inspector who heads the HMI audit unit, had a familiar message for headteachers to whom he wrote: "The differences in performance between pupils in P7 and S2 raised concerns about learning and teaching in the first two years of secondary school."

When the previous survey was conducted in 1993, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, who was Education Minister at that time, noted "the relatively disappointing performance of S2 pupils despite the two years of science teaching they have received". Lord James hoped the 5-14 environmental studies guidelines would be in full use by the time of the 1996 report, leading to an improvement in science.

The latest survey shows these hopes have been dashed. Only 18 per cent of primary schools and 17 per cent of secondaries reported that the environmental studies guidelines were fully operational. A further 64 per cent of primaries and 78 per cent of secondaries said they were "under consideration".

The Government's researchers also found that 40 per cent of primaries were still giving insufficient time to science, although that is an improvement on 1993. But this means a considerable number of schools are devoting less than the recommended 7.5 per cent of class time to the subject.

The problems appear to be deep seated. "Primary teachers identified pressure of time as the biggest obstacle to increasing the time allocated to science," the researchers say. "Lack of resources and lack of accommodation were also significant problems; only 26 per cent of schools reported being well equipped with practical or commercial materials."

Rae Stark and Tom Bryce at Strathclyde University, who directed the survey, say that staff development is required both locally and nationally. There should be more opportunities for "hands-on" science which pupils say they enjoy particularly.

Reviewing progress over the three surveys since 1990, the report says Primary 4 performance has risen on written but not on practical tasks, Primary 7 performance has remained fairly steady in both, while Secondary 2 performance has fallen on written tasks, although the position is less clear on practical work.

Across the three stages in 1996, the message is much the same as in previous surveys that Primary 7 and Secondary 2 pupils perform better than those in Primary 4 but that stagnation sets in during the changeover from primary tosecondary school.

The report comments: "These patterns are in line with those of earlier surveys, indicating that while pupils appear to make significant progress in the knowledge, skills and processes across the P4 to P7 stages, the difference in performance from P7 to S2 does not appear to reflect the two years of specialist science teaching which they have experienced."

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