Hairy days for science

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Wordy and convoluted Sats drain the magnetism of an exciting subject, argues Huw Thomas

The results for key stage 2 science are, or soon will be, in our hands. But thinking back to Sats week, I'm still wondering if we actually tested science. Happy as I am celebrate the success of learners, I'm wondering what they actually learned.

In every curriculum subject, children encounter the occasional plateau upon which they can build. Single digit addition turns to tens and units. The "extracts and video" approach to Shakespeare becomes the reading of the whole play. At KS2 there is a tidy amount of science knowledge, with a curriculum that provides a foundation for further learning. It has breadth and interest.

The problem is the way it gets tested. It seems that teachers' primary science learning has reached one of those plateaux, the KS2 canon being well taught. While the country's 11-year-olds struggle to reach 80 per cent at level 4 or above in English and maths, 100 per cent success in science is not unusual in many schools, and the national average is 86 per cent.

This has driven our assessors to devise ever-more convoluted questions to try to split the cohort. The papers have become weird and wordy, burying the science within a test that is more comprehension and logic problem than physics and nature.

We then respond with ever-more practising of tests, and in doing so deaden the subject. The subject that, for me, sparked an interest in life, the universe and everything, has become dull, dull, dull. This is especially sad because science in the top junior years has always been such fun. Given that the Government aims to attract more young people into science A-level and university courses, isn't it bonkers that we're putting them off the subject at their most enthusiastic age?

This year's first paper included a hefty diet of logic problems, including a key to leaf recognition that was more Su Doku than science, leaving kids unable to see the wood for those trees. The question in this case should have read: "The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have found a stupid way to represent information. Can you see what they are getting at?"

My guess is that most children are ok with gravity and can drop objects from a range of heights, so to try and divide the sample into levels, the question on this subject was wrapped around the story of Isaac Newton, complete with an illustration of the great man (in which he looks eerily like Cher).

The last question lumbered along the tracks. The science was circuits, the stuff of fun with bulbs and buzzers, but it was mangled up in a convoluted explanation of some loony construction, with a train track and batteries.

It completely derailed children who know the science.

Science has been turned into a lugubrious reading task, with more words in the science paper than in the actual reading comprehension one. Word count aside, I am certain there are children who are better scientists than their peers, but who have attained a lower level because they are being asked to demonstrate that intelligence through inappropriate tasks that mire them in strange scenarios.

I'm still puzzling as to what the little puffer train was meant to be doing. It might have been an attempt to craft a scenario, but to me the train was one chug too many.

Huw Thomas is head of Emmaus primary in Sheffield

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