Forces at play on the training ground

8th September 1995 at 01:00
Primary pupils won't learn science from teachers who don't understand it themselves and unqualified inspectors may fail to notice.

Try this question from this year's science paper for 11-year-olds. If you get it wrong make yourself feel better by putting the question to the next half-dozen people you meet. Provided you are not about to host a party for physicists, I think I can safely predict that you will find that you are not alone.

For those of you who are primary teachers, knowing that the majority of the population shares your difficulty will be small comfort. The key stage 2 tests have highlighted the challenge for teachers of introducing children of primary age to real science. It is no longer enough to provide a variety of activities for children to experience, there is also a need to develop their conceptual understanding. It is one thing to get children to make an electric circuit but it is quite another to discuss the flow of current with them. Primary teachers are ready, willing and able to rise to this challenge but they are going to need support. Does the Government realise that this support is necessary and, if so, what provision has it made?

There may be those in Government who will say that funding has already been given to primary science and that there are more pressing needs elsewhere. Undoubtedly, primary science has been a success story, coming a long way in the six years since becoming a compulsory core subject. Some headway has also been made in improving teachers' scientific knowledge. Many schools have sent their science co-ordinator on the GEST (Grants for Educational Support and Training) funded 20-day courses (15 days in Wales) and newly-qualified teachers will have taken a course in science as part of their initial training. But when thinking about these measures in relation to the total primary teaching force, the words tip and iceberg come to mind.

The majority of practising primary teachers have no science qualification from their own schooldays; they carried out their initial training before science was made a core subject and have received limited in-service training - possibly just a couple of training days and a few drips from a cascading science co-ordinator.

This lack of effective training for most teachers has affected the quality of learning for pupils. Recent reports from the Department for Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools (Wales) and the Office for Standards in Education confirm this. The former points out that many key stage 2 teachers have insufficient knowledge of the subject to teach it effectively, resulting in work which is often unclear in its objectives; the latter notes that shortcomings in key stage 2 teachers' understanding of science result in the incorrect use of scientific terminology and an overemphasis on the acquisition of knowledge at the expense of conceptual development.

Members of the House of Commons Education Committee, in the recently published report, Science and Technology in Schools, unanimously agreed that there remained serious problems with primary teachers' confidence in teaching science due to their lack of subject knowledge. Clearly the Government recognises the problem, but what does it intend to do about it?

There are murmurings in several quarters, that the problem could be significantly reduced by greater use of specialist teachers. In his annual report, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, encouraged more primary schools to make the most of teachers with particular subject expertise and to develop more flexible patterns of staff deployment. It is certainly an option that all schools should consider but it raises several issues.

In small schools, each teacher co-ordinates up to five subjects so there may not be a science specialist on the staff. Also, any swapping of classes is likely to involve teachers from key stage 1, bringing unwelcome disruption for the very youngest children. In larger schools, we should recognise that before teachers can swap classes timetables must be introduced and enough resources provided for a whole class of children to work on science simultaneously. This would move primary schools closer to the secondary model of organisation but we should not assume that things always run completely smoothly under this system.

Even though they have the advantages of laboratories, greater resources and technicians, it is generally acknowledged that secondary teachers have found the organisation of science investigations more troublesome than their primary colleagues.

Many of their difficulties have been attributed to the timetable and a bell that rings just as the pupils are getting somewhere. The flexibility of primary working arrangements has much to commend it.

If specialism is not the panacea, what else is in the Government's pipeline to help improve primary teachers' understanding of science? At the very least it might be expected that current levels of provision would be maintained. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case. Funding from GEST has been re-directed to other areas and, as OMHCI (Wales) has reported, the devolution of Inset funding to schools has meant that many have found that the 10 to 15-day courses in mathematics and science were barely within their means.

Let us imagine for a moment that the necessary funds are available. What sort of support would we want schools to have? We would need to recognise that science often asks us to consider concepts that challenge the commonsense way of looking at things - like that football.

Being given the answer with a quick explanation is not the same as really making sense of it for yourself. We need more than the straightforward passing on of information typical of many teachers' own science education. This was brought home to me recently when running an Inset course for co-ordinators where one of our maxims was "No big words". Whenever a scientific term tripped off someone's lips, proceedings would stop until everyone had thought about their own interpretation of it. In this instance, the word photosynthesis cropped up.

"Aha!" said one enthusiastic co-ordinator, "I think I'm going to be all right on this one - I've got biology A-level." A few minutes later we all compared notes, turning last to the best qualified member of the group. He started to read: "Photosynthesis is the process whereby . . ." There was a long pause followed by a rueful grin: "Trouble is, I can't remember the rest!" From my conversations with teachers, it seems that there are two things which they find particularly valuable in their training. First, a chance to sort out their own ideas in non-threatening discussions with someone to whom they can turn for clarification; and, second, an opportunity to consider how they could use what they have learned in the classroom, both in terms of scientific understanding and an approach which values the ideas which people bring with them. For example, several key stage 2 teachers commented that when they gave their pupils an opportunity to think hard about the words and phrases they used in science it encouraged a tighter use of terminology and a subsequent clarification of pupils' understanding.

Perhaps the main discipline that should be developed by teachers is to make sure that the language used during science sessions is both simple and accurate. Placing language centre stage in science teacher education means that the method of delivery must involve opportunities for teachers to converse about science. Although distance learning packs and television programmes can offer useful back-up material they cannot replace a good training course.

Effective in-service training is the answer. However, good providers of Inset may now be in short supply. Many education authorities have reduced their advisory teams to the extent that they are unable to meet the demand for training. Schools which find that they cannot get support locally will have to make a choice: either they can run their own training days with a danger that misconceptions will be unwittingly passed on, or they can venture on to the open market. Taking the latter option is no guarantee of quality since we lack a national accreditation scheme for providers of Inset. Time and money are in very short supply in schools. An accreditation scheme could save both. This may well be an area where the newly formed Teacher Training Agency will take the lead as part of its commitment to continuing professional development, possibly in conjunction with professional organisations such as the Association for Science Education.

Whatever happens with accreditation, we will always need to monitor the effect of Inset on pupils' work. The most valuable form of monitoring is one that can be carried out by schools themselves. Training courses should have follow-up staff meetings where teachers and course leaders look at pupils' work together and evaluate how much the children's performance has improved.

Nationally, however, the only monitoring of the effect of Inset provision on pupils' learning is through the inspection system. As primary inspectors are largely drawn from the teaching profession there is every reason to suppose that their scientific knowledge is at a similar level. Some inspection teams will carry a science specialist but some will not. It is hard to envisage consistent judgments coming from such a scenario and this will leave schools feeling concerned: does a clean bill of health show that their science was really sound or just that the inspector shared the same insecurities?

We have a new curriculum, new tests and an exciting challenge - to make it work we need a training package of effective Inset courses, sufficient providers, a national accreditation scheme and suitably qualified inspectors.The time has come to offer primary teachers the wherewithal to enable them do their job properly. The key stage 2 SATs test not only the attainment of pupils but also the effectiveness of teachers. Just as we would not expect pupils to sit a test without first teaching them the curriculum, so we should not judge teachers without giving them the training. There is an army of primary teachers out there wanting support and a generation of pupils depending on them. They deserve a better deal.

Anne Goldsworthy, a former advisory teacher for Gwent, runs an independent primary science advisory service.

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