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Secondary science 'dumbed down'

Karen Thornton on a threat to pupils' progress revealed at last week's annual meeting of the Association for Science Education.

PUPILS are being held back in science by a "dumbing down" of the curriculum when they transfer to secondary school, according to research commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Secondary teachers, faced with pupils from 30 different feeder schools, are teaching to the lowest common denominator and ignoring the information supplied by primary colleagues.

Pupils are having to put up with repeated topics and teaching aimed at the lower end of key stage 2 - rather than the higher national curriculum levels of 5 or 6 that some are achieving by age 11.

The research, was carried out last year by Mick Knott and Robin Smith of Sheffield Hallam University and announced at last week's annual meeting of the Association for Science Education in Reading. It is based on a survey of 70 schools in three education authorities, plus detailed interviews.

The researchers found much to praise. The standard of pupils' scientific investigation is improving year by year, and the correct use of scientific vocabulary is increasing in primary schools. Continuity within individual schools is good.

But progression between schools - whether infant to junior, primary to secondary, or middle to high - remains problematic, with discontinuities both in schemes of work and teaching strategies.

Secondary and primary teachers are generally ignorant of each others' schemes of work, say the researchers, and all teachers distrust the pupil assessments made by their colleagues at the previous key stage. (See Research Focus, January 8) Secondary teachers are making little or no use of pupil information transferred from feeder schools, and are failing to build on the work already done at primary level.

Speaking at the Association for Science Education's annual meeting last week, Mr Knott said: "A substantial number of kids are being exposed to levels 56 or even 7 at key stage 2. But when we compared questionnaires from primary and secondary teachers, there was obviously a dumbing down going on when they went to key stage 3.

"There is very little curriculum discussion going on between phases, and a lack of trust in the validity of assessments made by others. This seems to be about discontinuity between institutions."

The biggest barriers to better transition arrangements include the large number of feeder schools from which secondaries draw pupils; lack of time for staff from different phases to discuss curriculum issues; inconsistent forwarding of records from primary schools; and the limited use made of them by secondary teachers.

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