Science's golden opportunity

The results for Scotland in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study are unsurprising. Even allowing for the younger age of the Scotland pupil sample, previous reports have identified similar weaknesses in pupils' knowledge and understanding of science concepts at upper primary and lower secondary.

Herein lies the dilemma. Despite poor performance at earlier stages, Scotland has done well over recent decades with higher-attaining pupils studying Standard grades, Highers and CSYSAdvanced Highers in the separate sciences. Uptake is significantly higher than in other parts of the UK, as evidenced by the recent Royal Society report. Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment for 2003 and 2007 confirm that 15-year-olds in Scotland continue to perform at a high level.

HMIE science reports note that teaching is consistently better at S3-6 than at S1-2. There are clear links between high-quality teaching and learning, pupil motivation, subject uptake and achievement. Across Scotland, there are successful departments where uptake and achievement are high. They are characterised by strong leadership at middle management where three heads work effectively as a team to promote the sciences at all levels. S1-2 pupils know where and when they are well taught and vote with their feet.

So why have pupils consistently under-achieved at upper primary and lower secondary? The concept of environmental studies, first mooted in the 1965 Primary Memorandum, constrained the development of science. In primaries in the 1970s and 1980s, all-embracing topic webs predominated and science disappeared in a quagmire of undemanding language and art and craft activities.

The Scottish Council for Research in Education in 1995 noted the majority of primary teachers had no science qualification, and most had dropped it at the end of S2. Most teachers lacked confidence and understanding in key aspects of 5-14 science.

The 5-14 environmental studies guidelines were not well received. Course content was overloaded and lacked relevance, levels were complex, and skill strands undeliverable.

At the point of transition, little evidence of prior attainment is passed to secondaries, so many science departments adopt a "fresh start" approach. Pupils are given few opportunities to be active in learning, the pace is slow and the limited inclusion of contemporary issues can lead to frustration.

The problem has been compounded at S1-2, where teachers have to operate outwith their specialist subject areas. The S1-2 science curriculum has never met pupils' needs.

It is heartening to note that "environmental studies" no longer appears in A Curriculum for Excellence. This should allow teachers greater freedom to determine the science curriculum and what is appropriate to deliver in inter-disciplinary terms. Similarly, schools are being encouraged to be more innovative and creative in meeting pupils' needs. The lack of national constraints on delivery should allow schools greater freedom to determine when specialist science teaching is introduced.

In all other parts of the UK, science is accorded core status alongside English and mathematics. Despite governments indicating how important science and associated technologies are to social, economic and industrial development and prosperity, it languishes among many equal partners.

ACfE provides a golden opportunity: never before have we tried to devise and deliver a seamless 3-18 science curriculum. On this occasion, we must get it right.

Next week: the way forward for school science

Jack Jackson is visiting professor, department of curricular studies, Strathclyde University.

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