A pay-it-forward model for better primary science

21st March 2014 at 00:00
Research hails innovative CPD mentor scheme as `very effective'

Science in primary schools has received a significant boost from an initiative that trains teachers to share their expertise, according to a report. But concerns have also been raised that some schools are dedicating insufficient time to the scheme, which trains primary specialists to act as science mentors.

The Primary Cluster Programme in Science and Technology, operating in 10 local authorities, invites teachers to two intensive residential training sessions, with attendees then expected to improve the science knowledge of fellow professionals at schools throughout their areas. A report by the University of Glasgow's Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change describes it as "particularly innovative and novel".

"Even at this stage in the programme, it is clear that putting in place mentors who have received quality CPD [continuing professional development].to build capacity of their teacher colleagues, and doing this within a cluster approach, appears to be a very effective method," it says.

Each school cluster receives pound;4,500 to support the work of its mentor. Other organisations provide follow-up training and Scotland's online network for teachers, Glow, is also used.

The report focuses on early adopters in Clackmannanshire, East Renfrewshire, Edinburgh and Fife. Key findings include raised confidence and expertise among mentors, who may not have a science background; more science and technology activities in classrooms; and increased interest in the subject among children. Mentors were "overwhelmingly positive" about their experiences and there was an "extremely high level of praise" for staff at the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre (SSERC), which runs the training.

However, researchers Stuart Hall and Kevin Lowden found that insufficient time could be "a major hindrance" to the success of the programme. "Mentors often reported being frustrated by a lack of time, with some suggesting that they could have achieved even more in their cluster if they had more time available for activity planning," the report says.

It also highlights the "crucial" need for school leaders to get behind the project. "In the one cluster that had no senior management representation in the mentor group there have been particular challenges in getting time to provide CPD and to plan, and so [there was] less engagement with other teacher colleagues," the report continues.

Almost all mentors indicated that they would introduce new methods into their science lessons after the first training event. One teacher, from the St Ninian's High cluster in East Renfrewshire, described the programme as "so positive and encouraging that I have become a more enthusiastic teacher of science [with an] understanding that practical, mind-challenging, hands-on experiences are an absolute necessity to capture the minds [of students]".

Many mentors worked directly with secondary and nursery staff, while some organised CPD on a "significant scale" - in East Renfrewshire's Mearns Castle High cluster, mentors ran four workshops attended by 140 staff. There were also efforts to include higher education, with geoscience students from the University of Edinburgh working with every school in the city's Boroughmuir High cluster.

Stuart Farmer, chair of the Association for Science Education, said: "Historically primary teachers in Scotland have lacked experience and confidence in science. Low minimum entrance qualifications in science for primary initial teacher education, plus the very low time the majority of [student teachers] spend on science has done nothing to address this issue."

Mr Farmer added that the cluster model had been successful in building teachers' confidence, improving the range of science activities and encouraging "collegiality" between schools. But he warned of potential difficulties in rolling the scheme out to more schools. "Scaling up such effective CPD to the level necessary to address the needs across the whole country will require very significant investment and capacity building beyond that which currently exists," he said.

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