Year 6 need not be grim, finds Donald Hiscock, when pupils play with gunge and catapults
Mike Brogan, headteacher of Shirley Junior School in Southampton, is not sure why science at his school has gained a strong reputation in the city.
He knows his staff are well organised and committed and that he hears good feedback from the pupils. The secret ingredient, however, might just lie in the form of his science co-ordinator, Polly Garside, for whom pretending to be a bumble bee and pollinating her 'flower' children is all part of her highly energetic approach to teaching.
At a time when Ofsted has raised concern over the drive to cram for SATs in Year 6 science teaching at the expense of enjoyment of the subject, Garside's class count themselves lucky.
"We are really encouraged to get involved and ask questions," says Year 6 pupil Taylor Pearson. The class likes the fact that they get to find out things on their own. They are always being told to ask "Why?" and they value the sometimes long discussions that arise, meaning the worksheets can be abandoned.
"We do stuff for ourselves and I feel I am learning more this way," says Jamie Ferguson. "I can't wait to get home and tell everyone about what I've done."
What Brogan describes as a magic formula is really down to what most teachers already know: learning needs to be fun. At Shirley Junior this sometimes means science at its goriest.
One of the lessons pupils speak highly of is about the digestive system. It starts with Garside cutting up her banana sandwiches with a pair of scissors to simulate the action of incisors. It ends with the pupils designing and making non-alcoholic cocktails. At plenty of points in between there is a lot of mess, especially when the teacher holds up a clear plastic bag full of mashed up food, having added food colouring to represent bile, vinegar for acid and washing-up liquid for enzymes. The contents of the stomach turn the discussion to vomit. The children love it.
Whatever the children discuss they soon realise that everything they do has a scientific angle. A strong cross-curricular approach reinforces this aspect of learning. "We do a lot of drama, which helps to get across some difficult concepts," says Polly Garside. "We don't just talk about particle theory, the pupils become the sun, the moon and the stars."
To make sure her colleagues feel comfortable with an abundance of fun in the classroom, Garside produces lesson plans and organises resources. This, she believes, is the best way to free staff from the pressure of hitting curriculum targets, so they can get on with teaching.
According to Brogan, spending as much as possible on science resources is an important factor in his school's science success. Signing the requisition form to purchase a catapult doesn't bother him in the slightest.
"Before the catapult, I bought a hot air balloon," says Garside. "I'll bid for anything that is likely to hold the children's attention and make lessons a bit of fun."
The focus on SATs only happens six weeks before they start, so the fun and games are a large part of Year 6 learning.
"It feels like all our subjects are taking place at the same time within the science lessons," says one of the pupils. "And I do like it when Mrs Garside does her bee impression." It seems that at Shirley Junior School the secret of successful science is to create a buzz in the classroom.
CREATING A BUZZ
Use visual aids that pupils are desperate to get their hands on
Set up role-play exercises that involve everyone and, preferably, get everyone laughing
Always send the class away with questions unanswered. Encouragge pupils to find out the answers for themselves
Follow the lesson plan, but be prepared to go with the flow