Gerald Haigh examines the key issues facing the subject at every stage
Inspections during 1995-96 showed that standards of achievement in science across all key stages are satisfactory or better in four out of five lessons, according to reports from the Office for Standards in Education*. But there is clearly room for development. So what needs to be done?
Key stage 1
Science teaching at this level is generally better than at the upper end of the primary school. Are key stage 1 teachers more used to teaching skills as opposed to delivering factual content? Are they more comfortable with practical work than are upper primary teachers?
* Action: Build on teacher expertise in the practical teaching of skills. But be aware of the factual content needed at the top of KS1.
Key stage 2
OFSTED notes a decline in achievement and quality of teaching as KS2 goes on. Why? Perhaps KS2 teachers are not building sufficiently on the skills taught at KS1. Perhaps KS2 teachers are more comfortable with delivering factual content than with developing skills.
OFSTED notes that pupil achievement is lower in science investigations than in the parts of the curriculum that deal with knowledge and understanding. At the upper end of KS2, more able pupils are sometimes inadequately served. They are introduced to such concepts as the fair test, but they are likely to be insufficiently challenged in the areas beyond that - prediction, seeking out patterns and evaluating results. Could this be because with more able pupils, KS2 teachers are working at the limit of their own understanding? Or is it that primary schools have inadequate resources for the demands of levels 5 and 6?
Although great strides have been made, teachers' own subject knowledge and understanding remains a major issue in the primary sector. This is also reflected in the way pupils display more knowledge in biological sciences than they do in physical sciences. Another factor is that schools may not always sufficiently recognise the need for progression in investigative skills. Investigative work, in other words, has to develop, just as factual content does, as the child progresses up the school. Many otherwise excellent published science schemes have still to address this.
* Action: Look at progression in AT1. Look at the balance between biological and other sciences. Look at higher level investigative skills with able pupils in Years 5 and 6. Review the role of the co-ordinator as a genuine leader in the subject.
Key stages 3 and 4
Standards in AT1 here are lower than in other areas. Another problem in KS3 is that schools give insufficient attention to building on the six years of science work pupils have had at primary level. This, of course, is a whole-curriculum problem and arises out of the still inadequate levels of cross-phase curricular liaison. Many secondary schools have too few good textbooks. Few have any long-term budgets for replacing major equipment such as computers. Other worries include lack of attention to matching work to pupil ability, and absence of links between "units" where work is organised in this way. OFSTED finds that less able pupils at KS4 are disproportionately underachieving. Perhaps this is because specialist science teachers in the upper secondary school are paying insufficient attention to the needs of the less able child in terms of language and literacy levels.
* Action: Put textbooks high on the budgetary agenda. Try to run a long-term plan for replacing "big" equipment. Look at links - year to year, unit to unit, primary to secondary. Look at differentiation and the needs of less able older pupils.
OFSTED had little to say about this, except that things were generally good. Other than that, it seems there is a continuing issue around the link between various kind of GCSE course and A-level.
Do even good students come to A-level adequately prepared? It may be that in some cases schools, instead of concentrating wholly on the merits of various approaches to GCSE science, ought also to look more closely at the early induction stages of their A-level courses.
Where can I get help?
Do you have a science scheme? Primary teachers, particularly, often profess a dislike of published schemes. But the re-invention of the wheel factor is strong here. The best published schemes have been honed and refined and offer support for the teacher as well as accurate information and challenging work for the pupil.
My review of published primary science schemes can be found in the MarchApril edition of Primary School Manager (10 Campion Terrace, Leamington Spa CV32 4SX. 01926 452575).
The Association for Science Education's in-service training director, Malcolm Oakes, manages a range of events and courses that address all of the issues raised here, at primary and secondary levels.
For example, a series of workshops is running across the UK which directly addresses, for secondary schools, many of the 1996 OFSTED findings. ASE Inset Services. Barclays Venture Centre, Sir William Lyons Road, Coventry CV4 7EZ. 01203 690053 fax 01203 690726.
*Subjects and Standards: Issues for School Development, primary and secondary (HMSO Pounds 6.95 each)