Put the spark back into primary science

2nd December 2011 at 00:00

Interest in science is sparked at a young age, often during primary school. When the Royal Society asked over 1,000 scientists and technologists when they first knew that was what they wanted to be, 28 per cent said it was before the age of 11.

Of course, science in primary schools is not just about nurturing the new generation of scientists: it is about giving children an early experience of a systematic approach to evidence and inspiring a sense of wonder at the natural world.

Primary science was one of the great successes of the national curriculum when it was introduced in 1988. Science flowered in primary schools, supported by some great pioneers in local authorities and the Association for Science Education. And primary science remains strong in the UK: in the 2007 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) comparison, nine-year-olds in England were rated seventh out of 37 countries.

But science in primary schools is threatened. In July, the Wellcome Trust and the National Science Learning Centre conducted a survey of primary school teachers to explore anecdotal evidence that science was no longer seen as a priority in primary schools. We were particularly interested to see if the removal of science Sats at the end of key stage 2 in 2009 had had an impact.

In all, 465 teachers responded to the survey. When teachers were asked about the impact of the removal of Sats, approximately three-quarters of the examples given were negative, such as: "Now that it is not externally tested the status of the subject has slipped. In particular it is given much less teaching time in upper KS2."

This is not how it was meant to be. Before 2009, there were concerns that primary science, especially in Year 6, had become a dull grind of preparation for Sats, and the hope was that abolishing these external tests in favour of teacher assessment would give more scope for hands-on scientific enquiry and more time to explore the many aspects of science that excite children's wonder.

There is evidence from our survey that some teachers felt this had indeed happened. But for every positive comment there were four negative ones, typically complaining about the changed status of science and the reduced time there was to teach it.

When the external tests were removed, the expectation was that science would continue with the prominence of a core subject, not least because assessment of progress in science would still be carried out internally by teachers. In reality, our survey showed that science has a much lower profile than mathematics and English, for which external Sats were retained.

No quick fix

Maths and English are the most important subjects in primary schools and they are rightly emphasised. But the Wellcome Trust is deeply concerned about the decline in primary science. Since 2008, it has funded the primary science quality mark to recognise high-quality science in primary schools. Through this project we have met teachers who are doing superb work that has inspired not only pupils but their parents, too. For example, at Park Hill Junior School in Croydon, Year 3 children carried out scientific tests on disposable nappies to test absorbency, strength and value for money.

Very few primary teachers are science specialists - there are about 6,000 science graduates among the 189,000 primary school teachers in England. Indeed, only a minority have studied any science beyond GCSE level, so it is not surprising that primary teachers are often apprehensive about tackling science, especially its physical and chemical aspects. This is especially the case when it comes to hands-on practical work, which is the essence of learning science. An important part of any renaissance in primary science is to help teachers gain confidence in their understanding of basic subject knowledge and to give them new ideas for practical work.

Let's be clear: I'm not calling for the return of science Sats. In the end, teaching rather than testing is the key. The Government's maths specialist teacher programme aims to put a maths specialist into every primary school, to guide, lead and inspire the teaching of maths by all teachers in their school. It would be great to do the same thing for science.

The Government recognises the value of science education both for individuals and for society, and actively supports these subjects in secondary and higher education. But this enthusiasm should be extended to the building blocks of primary science. Is it too ambitious to expect that by, say, 2016 every primary school would have a science specialist with the leadership skills and expertise to inspire their colleagues to reach new heights in science teaching?

Meanwhile, headteachers can start the ball rolling by using the high-quality training for primary schools provided by science learning centres, often at no cost to the school, and by setting their school the goal of being awarded the primary science quality mark. By doing so, they will be opening their pupils' eyes to our astonishing world and preparing them for a future full of science, as well as lighting fires in future scientists, from astronomers to zoologists, with disciplines that have yet to be imagined in between.

Sir John Holman is senior fellow for education at the Wellcome Trust, and former director of the National Science Learning Centre.

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