Asking much too much

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Many teachers are disillusioned by the mismatch between expectation and reality in the teaching of primary science, a survey of 25 schools in North and South Lanarkshire has revealed.

The survey, carried out last session as part of an MSc study for Strathclyde University, revealed that teachers and heads are deeply concerned about the viability of the curriculum guidelines, and that most schools do not expect primary science 5-14 to be implemented or sustainable by 2001 unless circumstances change.

Questionnaires, sent to 100 primary teachers, heads and advisers, asked about the place and status of primary science, the confidence and competence of primary teachers, pre- and in-service training, management and organisation, effective teaching and learning, roles and responsibilities, teaching methodology and constraints. In two schools teachers were also asked to say whether they considered topic-based or free-standing primary science at Primary 3 and 7 stages to be better.

From the survey it was clear that most teachers thought primary science should be given a higher profile and that more time should be devoted to teaching it. Teachers expressed a strong commitment to the subject but were disillusioned by the mismatch between expectation and reality. In 1996-97 science was the third most popular area for development. However, this position is set to decline as schools move on with their development plans.

Most teachers and heads did not consider science teaching to be one of their strengths, and more than half said that they needed more training in the subject. Pre-service training was considered inadequate for the demands of the 5-14 science curriculum, particularly by teachers who had completed their training more than 10 years ago.

All the teachers surveyed, except those who had specialised in science, felt that the science input in their course had been limited. They recognised the value of the specialist study element in current courses, but were concerned that the intense competition for good degrees made students focus on personal strengths rather than areas of weakness.

Many of the teachers also thought that college tutors had become distanced from the reality of the primary classroom. Most teachers thought that a science qualification should be a pre-requisite for entry to the BEd course.

Despite concerns about teachers' competence in science, only 25 out of 469 hours of in-service training had been spent on primary science over the past three years, compared with 71 hours on information technology and 35 hours on physical education.

The expertise of some course presenters was called into question, and there was a growing dissatisfaction at the tendency towards twilight courses for in-service.

One solution to the teachers' concerns would be to get schools to lay on whole-school in-service training, which would run concurrently with an annual personal entitlement. Several models of in-service provision were offered as alternatives to current practice. There was strong support for the idea of "time out" and for an in-service week during or at the start of term. The main thrust of the other models was to provide more space for development within contract time.

Also popular was the idea of having a separate policy statement for science; there was a general consensus over its content. Only 20 per cent of the schools surveyed already had a policy in place.

Teachers and heads listed the provision of staff development, the centralisation of resources and the monitoring and evaluation of a set programme of study as key responsibilities for their senior management teams. They were strongly in favour of introducing a structured national or authority-wide core programme of strategically planned lessons matched to the 5-14 guidelines and appropriate to each primary stage. Schools could adapt this core programme to meet their own particular needs.

Nearly all the teachers and heads wished to have a primary or secondary science specialist, and pointed out that the rationale to the national guidelines had referred to the involvement of specialist support. It was felt that an entitlement to specialist support should be quantified.

Headteachers favoured primary specialism to secondary, on the grounds that the provision of secondary specialism would be unsustainabl e. Those who had "bought in" secondary specialism reported a great improvement in their science provision, but were concerned that this option was not open to all schools.

Advisers who took part in the survey were vehemently opposed to a role for specialists, and suggested that the training of all teachers would be a more manageable option. One solution would be a co-ordinatin g role for primary specialists who would manage school-based provision and liaise with secondary colleagues. The co-ordinator would need to have some specified non-class contact time.

There was substantial support for science as a free-standing subject, particularly in upper primary. Advocates of a topic-based approach acknowledged that the system posed management and effectiveness problems.

The strong support for a free-standing approach to primary science was substantiated by a small experiment in two primary schools comparing its effectiveness with a topic-based approach. Programmes of study were developed over one term for eight appropriate 5 to 14 learning outcomes at levels A (for P3) and D (for P7). The results were astonishing, with 16 out of 25 P3 pupils in the free-standing programme achieving all eight outcomes, compared with three out of 25 in the topic-based programme. In P7, 12 out of 25 pupils in the free-standing programme achieved all eight outcomes, compared with three out of 25 in the topic-based programme.

Teachers, heads and advisers expressed strong support for the structure of the science 5-14 programme but were scathing about the circumstances in which the programme was expected to be delivered. They were most unhappy about the levels of resources - both human and material - and the extent to which the 5-14 programme placed unrealistic demands on them. A need for space specially set aside for science , better pupil-teacher ratios and more non-class contact time were also identified.

James Mullen is head of St James' Primary School, North Lanarkshire

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