Is science education standing still?

13th June 2008 at 01:00
From 2003-07, there was no improvement in the knowledge and understanding of the subject. Elizabeth Buie reports
From 2003-07, there was no improvement in the knowledge and understanding of the subject. Elizabeth Buie reports

A snapshot survey of primary and early secondary pupils has uncovered significant gaps in their knowledge and understanding of science at upper primary and early secondary.

Only 6 per cent of pupils at P7 and 17 per cent at S2 had achieved the expected levels for their stage, according to the Scottish Survey of Achievement into science, science literacy and core skills, published by the Government this week.

Early primary pupils performed better, with almost 55 per cent achieving their expected level. At all stages and levels, achievement in science literacy - assessed for the first time in a national science survey - was stronger than science knowledge and understanding.

Between 2003 and 2007, there was no improvement in science knowledge and understanding.

Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, attacked the "unacceptable lack of progress" made in this area under the previous Scottish Executive. "The survey results highlight the challenge this Government has inherited: to build up capability for science teaching; to ensure that pupils can enjoy a rounded science learning experience; and that our young people understand the importance of science in the 21st century," she said.

The Scottish Government is investing pound;2.1 million in continuing professional development in science teaching. Ms Hyslop said she hoped the Science Baccalaureate, launched last week, would improve the position by encouraging more young people to study the subject at the highest level.

John Coggins, vice-principal of Glasgow University, said the SSA report was "worrying" because it showed that science education was standing still and possibly even going backwards. Professor Coggins, who chaired the Scottish Science Advisory Committee report of 2003, Why Science Education Matters, said the committee's hopes of action from the previous Scottish Executive had not been fulfilled.

He was still concerned that insufficient resources were available to deliver science under A Curriculum for Excellence and called for a team of experienced teachers to develop the science curriculum. It was particularly important that good CPD and materials be made available to primary teachers, most of whom came from an arts background.

A spokesman for the Educational Institute of Scotland said: "The development of A Curriculum for Excellence will free up teachers to concentrate more on key areas, such as science, which can be addressed in cross-curricular teaching in nursery, primary and secondary schools.

"However, this does have considerable resource implications which will require additional financial investment from the Scottish Government and local authorities."

The survey revealed continuing gender differences among pupils and teachers when it came to the subject. In science knowledge and understanding, boys and girls had similar attainment in P3, but at older stages, boys out-performed girls. Boys also tended to rate themselves more highly than girls did.

Around 90 per cent of primary teachers were fairly or very confident teaching biology topics, but far fewer were confident about teaching chemistry (60 per cent) or physics (just over half).

Female primary teachers were slightly more confident than their male colleagues when teaching biology topics, while male teachers were more confident when teaching topics with chemistry or physics themes.

Even in S2, a greater proportion of female than male teachers were confident about teaching biology, but a far greater proportion of male than female teachers were very confident about teaching physics.

Only 15 per cent of primary teachers had taken up more than two science CPD opportunities over the previous four years and nearly 40 per cent had not taken up any, the survey showed.

Pupils' interest in school science topics was highest at P3 and tended to decrease at each stage. They generally showed good awareness of science topics in the news, especially by S2, where boys seemed to have heard of more topics than girls.

However, few pupils thought the subject matter affected their lives. Even for issues like diet and exercise, and climate change and pollution, around a third of pupils felt they were relevant to them personally.


Science knowledge and understanding Almost 55 per cent of P3 pupils were well established or better at Level A and just over 30 per cent were already well-established or better at Level B

Just under half of pupils in P5 were well established or better at Level B (the expected level for P4) and around one in 10 were well established or better at Level C (the expected level for P6)

Performance was less strong at P7, where 6 per cent of pupils were well established or better at their expected level (Level D)

In S2, just over 15 per cent were well established or better at Level E.

Science literacy - assessed for the first time Just over 80 per cent of pupils in P3 were classified as well established or better at Level A

In P5, just over 45 per cent were well established or better at Level C

At P7, just under 30 per cent were well established or better at Level D

In S2, the proportion at Level E was around 40 per cent

The results suggest greater variation in achievement at P7 and S2; a third of pupils in S2 were already well established or better at Level F, the level above that expected.

Science literacy practical A small sub-sample of pupils took part in one-to-one conversations with a visiting teacher on their awareness of scientific issues and the ability to reflect critically on scientific information. They were rated on a three-point scale for each skill

At P3, around 60 per cent of pupils were in the middle or top of the scale

At P5, this increased to more than 75 per cent

At P7 and S2, it was up to almost 90 per cent.

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