Science classes 'failing'

1st December 2000 at 00:00
MORE THAN one in two primary teachers say their teaching of science is hindered by their lack of training and confidence in the subject, the latest Assessment of Achievement Programme study of science has revealed.

Lack of staff development to keep experienced secondary teachers, who trained up to 30 years ago, up to date is also highlighted in the latest HMI report on secondary science. Many teachers need to improve their knowledge of current issues and tailor courses to pupils' needs far more than they do, say the inspectors.

In a familiar refrain, they say science in S1 and S2 is failing many pupils and could be significantly improved.

The 1999 AAP survey of 5 per cent of pupils in P4, P7 and S2 reveals continuing stagnation in 5-14 science, partly due, inspectors believe, to primary teachers' uncertainties and the lack of focus and drive in the first two years of secondary. The findings once again raise the issue of specialisms in upper primary.

National performance is below expectations in P4 and in knowledge and understanding in P7 but "substantially below" in skills in P7 and "across the board" in S2. Between 75 and 80 per cent of pupils should reach level D in P7 and level E in S2 but only half do.

Performance in primary is broadly the same as in 1996 but improved at P4 over the 1993 levels. In early secondary, performance is still poorer than in 1993.

Nicol Stephen, deputy Minister for Education, underlined concerns about 5-14 science, adding: "It is vital that specialist science courses are kept up to date and studied by increasing numbers of young people. There has been a decline in those taking Higher physics, chemistry and biology since 1995 and in the numbers taking some science-based degrees. We need a national campaign to raise the importance of science education in Scotland."

The HMI report on secondry science, the sixth in the Standards and Quality series, presents a mixed picture. In more than 90 per cent of departments, the inspectors found effective teaching, matched by effective Standard grade, Higher and Sixth Year Studies courses. There were good relationships between pupils and teachers in virtually all departments and a positive ethos in most. It was particularly strong where the different science teachers worked together as a team to deliver S1-S4 courses.

There were a "substantial number of key strengths" in secondary science between 1995 and 2000, the inspectors report. Their view is based on 325 inspections.

But they confirm the weaknesses in S1S2 courses identified by the AAP survey. Teachers need to take account of "new and relevant content and pupils' experience of science in the primary school and the wider community".

Attainment should be significantly improved in knowledge and understanding and in investigative and thinking skills by more teacher interaction with classes and broader, more interesting and challenging tasks. "A lot of science courses in S1 and S2 involve worksheets or individualised approaches to learning," the inspectors report.

Further up the school, many S3 and S4 pupils have tended to follow inappropriate courses in biology, chemistry and physics which are only offered at General and Credit levels. The general science courses may have been more suited but have proved less attractive.

The introduction of Higher Still courses has helped to change the pattern in S5 and S6 with more than 5,000 pupils this year following Intermediate courses.

The inspectors, however, berate the many science laboratories which continue to present "a Victorian image in the 21st century". This has to change if the image of science is to be improved, the inspectors report.

Leader, page 16

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