Don't meddle with the science lesson

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Usually I'm not excitable. But there was a hint of John McEnroe in my reaction to the announcement of a redesign of the science curriculum 3-18 - or at least to the 5-12 bit. "You can't be serious," I exclaimed, addressing the computer screen. "Not another go at primary science."

Those of us nearing retirement began teaching in the late 1960s, and one of the exciting developments then was primary science. A working lifetime later and after many projects, reviews and wads of cash, science still has only a precarious hold in many primary classrooms. Some sort of record, surely? Forty years of "leadership" by our science experts and little to show for it. Even recently introduced "enterprise education" is doing better.

I suppose the review is due to a feeling that we still aren't getting science right, a view supported by the recently published results of two surveys of science attainment. The Assessment of Achievement Programme (AAP) samples attainment at P3, P5, P7 and S2 from Scottish schools, while the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is an international comparison at P5 and S2. Neither survey is encouraging about our science attainment at upper primary or early secondary. Other countries, including England, do much better.

On the surface, it looks as if a review is necessary if we are to move forward but all it can do is continue the merry-go-round of uncertainty created by the plethora of previous reviews and projects. It's only a couple of years since we had the revised environmental studies 5-14 guidelines. What can have changed so soon?

We know already how to improve - good resource management, clear planning, active learning, continuity and progression, motivation. All the usual buzz-words are there and all are necessary.

But we need to state loudly that primary science only works where you have confident teachers. The past 40 years has failed to provide us with confident teachers of primary science because the development projects, which enthused their participants, were seen by teachers as complicated and lacking in clear, consistent and practical guidance.

Debates about the relative importance of process skills and scientific knowledge may engross curriculum experts but they don't help the class teacher and her 30 pupils. Or what about the claims of integrated and standalone science? Then there are the workcard packs and their ambitious resource lists, so that children can work in small groups on diverse topics. Oh, and there's assessment too. Who can wonder that primary science is a dread for many teachers? Too often it has meant a chaotic classroom, serious doubts about the benefits to children's learning and plummeting teacher confidence.

But there is good news. Some experts have seen the light, so we have had the report Improving Science 5-14, followed by the excellent Improving Science Education website. Our education authority, not previously noted for any interest in primary science, invested in Renfrew Science materials for all its schools. This is the business - standalone topics for each class, clear learning objectives and good background notes for teachers.

Regular provision of science cash from the Scottish Executive has allowed the purchase of dedicated resources for each topic in sufficient numbers so that a class can be engaged in the same activities at the same time. The result is growing confidence and enjoyment for teachers. They are happier at sharing experiences with others and children's attainment is better.

A review means another period of uncertainty and teachers hearing the message: "It's all changing again."

Confidence-developing is for individual schools. Give them the space and time to do it and the next round of international comparisons may show improved attainment. After all, there's not much to show for 40 years of the top-down approach.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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