"Engagement in science has to begin young. I think teachers sometimes go against their better judgment in having too much rote revision," says Helen Wilson, senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University. She led a group of educators considering whether a cognitively exciting curriculum in Year 6 results in higher achievement in key stage 2 Sats.
Helen talks enthusiastically of children as researchers, so 16 primary schools and 32 teachers (with funding from AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust) tried it out. "We wanted to change from writing it all down to focused recording. Science is supposed to be practical, thinking about big ideas. The national curriculum has content from which this approach can be developed," she says.
Pip Irwin of Charlton School, near Wantage, in Oxfordshire, was enthusiastic: "We produced evidence of pupils' attitudes and achievement improving." Her group of Years 5 and 6 started with a question and answer session about wire and circuit diagrams, followed by thinking about a world without electricity. The children suggested that you might still have phones with fibre optics, but you probably wouldn't have mobiles. You would cook on a fire. People would be fitter, because they would have to mix things by hand. Without computers, banking would be hard. The ice caps wouldn't melt.
Next, Pip announced that she was a princess who had precious jewels to be guarded. Materials including motors, bulb holders, buzzers, crocodile clips, wire, switches, boxes, tape, foil and glue were offered, and nine mixed-ability design teams formed to work out how to do it. One group arranged for a light to come on when the door was opened, and a buzzer to sound when the jewel was removed; another camouflaged the jewel and set up a string trip which triggered an alarm. Each idea was realised within a shoebox, photographed and captioned to explain the processes.
"I know there are children who are able at science, who are not particularly literate or numerate," says Helen. "They can display their aptitude if it doesn't have to be written."
One child said: "That was good, you had to think a lot more, it makes science more fun". For teachers, it can be hard to accept that there is no single right answer, and that simply talking about the materials used in an experiment may be more important than the end result.
Kate Wallace of Faringdon Junior School was visited by the Office for Standards in Education during the project. The inspectors thought there was "not enough evidence," she said. "I told them to talk to the children. They did, and they were convinced."
But what of the results? In the previous year, results were in line with the national average; 41 per cent got level 5. Working this new way, 53 per cent did.