Slip in status for primary science after Sats dropped

The subject now gets less KS2 teaching time, research shows

The demise of key stage 2 science Sats was welcomed in many quarters: plenty of school staff hoped the reform would usher in a new era of innovation in the classroom and reduce "teaching to the test".

But three years on, it seems those who warned that the loss of the exams would lead to the subject being relegated and seen as less important in primary schools could well be right.

New research by the Wellcome Trust shows there is now less science teaching in many primary schools and that it has a lower status compared to "core subjects" such as English and maths than when it was one of the three Sats subjects.

More than half the surveyed teachers (50.9 per cent) said they "strongly agreed" or "agreed" that the importance placed on science in their schools had changed since the removal of Sats. And 54 per cent said they strongly agreed, or agreed, that the removal of science Sats had "impacted" on the teaching and learning of the subject in their school. A total of 465 teachers took part in the survey, which was conducted online last summer.

Teachers were asked to cite anecdotal examples of changes in school since the exams ended, and 73 per cent were negative. "Now that it is not externally tested, the status of the subject has slipped. In particular, it is given much less teaching time in upper KS2," one teacher told researchers.

"Less time devoted to science and there is less appreciation of science as a core subject," another said. "(There is) greater reluctance from teachers to report science achievement at (the) end of the key stage and less confidence in doing so."

The science fraternity is concerned by the research's conclusions. "We know that students often first develop a love of science and the goal of a science career in their primary years," said Dr Hilary Leevers, the Wellcome Trust's head of education and learning. "Unfortunately many teachers have indicated that following the removal of external science tests in 2009, teaching time for science, or its status, was reduced in their schools.

"It's important that we raise the status of primary science without reintroducing the 'teaching to test' that Sats had often encouraged."

Annette Smith, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said the findings "mirrored the experience" of her members. "We have learnt of two divergent responses. The first, as indicated in the report, is to give less time to science and to regard it as less important than when it was tested," she said.

"The second is to take advantage of the freedom gained and to devote more time to engaging, practical learning in science, including opportunities to take science beyond the classroom."

Teachers who took part in the survey also said the abolition of the tests had brought positive benefits, including not having to teach to the test. They have been better able to run practical lessons and field trips. But the report said these efforts may be countered by the fact that less science is being taught in primary schools.

Justin Kelly, head of Tadworth Primary School in Surrey, said he didn't want pupils to "leave us with their memories of Year 6 being practice paper after practice paper".

"We continue to conduct science investigations, assessing the children's skills as scientists, and feel that curriculum coverage in science has remained broadly the same as it was when the science Sats were around," he added.

Perhaps counterintuitively, a Department for Education spokesman defended the status quo, insisting that "teachers should be free to plan creative and challenging science classes for their pupils without being stifled by unnecessary testing".

So, whether or not the demise of science Sats results in less science teaching, it seems extremely unlikely they will be making a return to a primary classroom near you.

See Comment, pages 48-49.

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