Skip to main content

Science with confidence

A weighty new 5-14 study programme aims to help primary teachers tackle their worst subject, Douglas Blane reports

According to a survey reported on the radio, 70 per cent of Scottish schoolchildren believe cotton comes from sheep. One wee lad interviewed confides that the origin of eggs is a mystery to him but he suspects potatoes come from cows.

If Argyll and Bute's new 5-14 science pack helps to dispel some of the ignorance this survey reveals it will more than repay the months of effort devoted to producing it. In providing the means to teach to the revised environmental studies guidelines, the Argyll and Bute Science Programme of Study aims above all to be comprehensive. In response to consultations with teachers, it also aims to be prescriptive, says Fiona Johnston, chair of the working group that compiled it.

Given the usual resistance to detailed instructions on how to teach, this is perhaps a surprise. The explanation is simple: Scottish primary teachers don't like science; they don't understand it; and they don't teach it well. So most of them gladly accept all the help they can get on this subject.

A Scottish Council for Research in Education survey found that only 12 per cent of primary teachers felt fully confident to teach science, while 63 per cent had no science qualifications, not even at Standard grade or equivalent.

International comparisons, such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, have shown that Scottish pupils are below average in science attainment and significantly below pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Well over half the science courses taught in Scottish primary schools have important weaknesses, say HM inspectors in their seminal report Improving Science Education 5-14. Some, such as the level of equipment in most schools, will take political will and increased finance to rectify. Argyll and Bute's new science pack will not cure all the ills of Scottish science education but could go quite a way towards meeting the requirement for high quality, relevant and topical resources.

Three education authorities and 30 schools in a further 13 authorities have already bought the pack, which indicates that this is what its detailed lesson plans and support materials provide.

"We had our teachers look at a number of options," says Margaret Robertson, adviser with responsibility for science in Inverclyde. "What appealed to them about the Argyll pack was that everything they needed was there: teaching materials, background knowledge, the resources for lessons and where to get them, materials for assessment. By using the pack in all our primary schools we'll ensure continuity and progression, and the secondaries can then take it forward."

At Sandbank Primary near Dunoon, headteacher Joan Halls says none of the staff has a science background and a major benefit of the pack has been the reduction of teacher stress due to new-found confidence in their science lessons. "The explanations of the science for the teacher are reassuring, and the equipment lists mean you no longer have to worry where to find 21 bottle-corks for tomorrow's experiment," she says.

"Nowadays primary teachers need to teach 17 subjects. We can't possibly be expert in all of them.

"It would be nice if the authority could now produce packs like this for some of the others."

Ms Johnston admits to queasy feelings on first taking responsibility for the science pack. "For a non-scientist headteacher it was a bit scary but it meant I came at it from a learning and teaching angle while the science expertise was provided by others.

"What we've produced takes close account of the recommendations of Improving Science Education 5-14 and is matched closely to the revised 5-14 guidelines.

"But for me, the most satisfying measure of success is when teachers say: 'This is great. The children really enjoy it and my science teaching is a whole lot better'."

This being Argyll, teachers are kept busy translating texts from English for Gaelic-medium education, but the science pack would require truly heroic efforts. So the authority has decided to assign the work to professional translators.

The Argyll and Bute Science Programme of Study includes lesson plans, support materials for levels A to D, plus a section on primary-secondary liaison. Work on level E is in progress. Single packs for schools or education authorities cost pound;425. Contact Fiona Johnston, tel 01369 708517

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you