Science makes detectable progress

21st January 2005 at 00:00
After 20 years of neglect, school science has a lot of catching up to do, in terms of curriculum and resources. Headway is being made in primary but early secondary has a long way to go, Douglas Blane reports

Governments have to be held accountable for the way they spend public money. But commentators who concluded from the Assessment of Achievement Programme (Science) report published last month that the Scottish Executive had squandered pound;18 million on school science were being unrealistic, say teachers.

"They don't understand how schools work," says Franca Reid, headteacher of Longforgan Primary in Perth and Kinross.

"The initial Science Strategy money came out of the blue in 2002 and we had to react very quickly. It wasn't on our development plans, so many schools won't have started looking at science until this year and some will not until next."

The AAP 2003 science survey reported a mix of negative and positive findings but found "no evidence" of any change in pupil attainment since the previous survey in 1999. However, the data gathered to support the comparison was scant. The two surveys had a "very modest" set of tasks in common; several stages were assessed in only one of the surveys and assessment with respect to the 5-14 levels - the basis of the latest report - had not previously been attempted.

Also new in the latest survey were questionnaires to teachers and pupils exploring their experience of science teaching and learning. The response to these showed primary teachers to be much less confident than secondary science teachers in how well prepared and resourced they are to teach the subject.

Yet, at the same time, much higher levels of enthusiasm for science were found among primary pupils than among those taught by their more confident, better-qualified secondary colleagues. In this respect, at least, primary teachers seem to be under-estimating their ability and performance.

"The primary sector has not been given enough credit for the huge improvements they have made in science in recent years," says John Richardson, executive director of the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre.

"Primary teachers might not be as confident as secondary teachers in the depth of their science knowledge but there is a lot more to teaching science than having it all in your head and being able to churn it out.

Primary teachers are particularly good at employing a wide range of learning and teaching strategies."

Evidence for the effectiveness of these comes from school inspections, which, unlike the Assessment of Achievement Programme, do support year-on-year comparisons and judgments about progress.

"Primary schools have really embraced the 5-14 science guidelines," says Jack Jackson, HM Inspectorate of Education's national specialist in science education. "It is now very unusual to go into a primary school and not find a comprehensive science programme being taught."

Improvements in the secondary sector are much less apparent, with first and second year science in particular continuing to cause the inspectorate concern. In too many schools physics, chemistry and biology specialists focus their best efforts on Standard grade and beyond, paying too little attention to the first two years of secondary science.

In the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (published last month), which assessed 15-year-olds, Scotland scored significantly above average, with only Finland, Japan and Korea having science pupils who could be said with certainty to have performed better.

"It may well show that we are doing well with students who continue to study science after S2," says Dr Jackson, "but it fails to show that far too many youngsters have, by that time, already been turned off the subject by first and second year courses that do not challenge or interest them sufficiently."

In the primary sector, various factors, such as new equipment, improved resources and programmes, and visiting specialists, have been contributing to science's rising achievement.

Inspectors and practitioners agree that the critical factor now, the key to continued improvement in primary and secondary science education, is staff professional development.

Teachers at Longforgan Primary are now "reasonably well resourced" to deliver the science curriculum, says the headteacher. "Any future funding should focus on giving us co-ordinated, quality CPD," says Ms Reid.

"In the past, so much CPD has been based on cascading. It didn't work. By the time anything reached the classroom, it was so watered down that the enthusiasm had vanished.

"We've had enough, too, of people teaching us all about particular topics, like electricity or forces. Teachers need to see the whole picture."

It is a sentiment Mr Richardson wholeheartedly supports. "We really must get beyond the deficit model in science education, the idea that staff development and teaching are simply about plugging gaps in knowledge and understanding."

As project manager for the professional development component of the Scottish Executive-funded Improving Science Education 5-14 initiative, Mr Richardson has been guiding the formation of collaborative groups around the country to prepare and deliver quality science courses and resources.

So far, primary teachers make up the majority of users.

Structured around the key elements of effective learning in science - big ideas, prior learning, misconceptions, cognitive conflict, formative assessment - this CPD has a strong focus on how learning actually happens.

Unlike much traditional science teaching, strategies built upon these elements have proved effective for large numbers of learners. They also underpin the other major component of ISE 5-14: the new science resources from Learning and Teaching Scotland.

While the future health of Scotland's science base may depend critically on the majority of primary and secondary teachers adopting modern learning and teaching strategies, lesson content is also important.

Deficits do exist, says Dr Jackson. "Science and technology are moving faster now than ever before, but some of the most exciting areas of modern science - genetics, biotechnology, microelectronics, astronomy, earth science - are often not being taught in our schools in S1 and S2.

"We have a huge staff development challenge to get science teachers who qualified maybe 20 or 30 years ago to engage with these modern topics that young people find so motivating and exciting."

In Scotland there is now broad agreement about what has gone wrong with school science, Mr Richardson believes.

"It is time to buckle down, recognise the realities and co-operate to find solutions and improve matters. It is the hard slog that makes up 90 per cent of achieving any worthwhile and lasting reform," he recently wrote in TES Scotland (Viewpoint, October 8).

School science, having been neglected for at least two decades, both financially and in terms of modernising the curriculum, has a lot of catching up to do, he says. "We are only three years into what everyone thought at the start was going to be a 10-year job."

Educational, cultural and economic arguments provide strong support for having science in the core curriculum, he says. "If we want youngsters to become lifelong learners, then science - which is all about curiosity, being sceptical, judging things against the evidence - is the ideal vehicle.

"University science departments are beginning to close for lack of students. So we really don't have a choice. We must get better.

"I am looking forward with considerable interest to the review of the 3-18 curriculum. A long-term commitment to science is vital."

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