Thousands of children preparing to enter secondary school are learning science in inadequate classrooms lacking crucial equipment, heads have told researchers.
A survey of 426 primary heads by Sue Harris for the National Foundation for Educational Research found that nearly half (44 per cent) thought their school's accommodation was inadequate for teaching science to top juniors. Of those, 10 per cent said it was very poor.
Heads pointed to lack of space for practical activities, no facilities for work involving water and lack of storage space. They also complained of inadequate temporary classrooms and "small rooms and large classes".
While most heads said their accommodation was adequate overall, it was "disturbing to note" that the dissatisfaction rose as the pupils got older. Nearly a quarter thought their school accommodation was inadequate or poor for science in Year 1, and the figure doubled in Year 6.
The survey also found "considerable variation" in the time allowed for science teaching in schools. About 70 per cent allocated at least as much time as recommended by Sir Ron Dearing, chair of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (an hour and a half per week for infants and 2 hours for juniors). But in some schools less than an hour was allotted to science, while others allowed more than three and a half hours.
Science co-ordinators had regular non-contact time in only a quarter of schools.
However, only 10 per cent of heads were worried about teachers' lack of scientific knowledge, although numerous studies have pointed to this problem. One such report, produced by Jonathan Osborne and Shirley Simon of King's College, University of London, suggests that the national curriculum should be limited, in the short to medium term, to fit in with primary teachers' current skills and resources.
They observed teachers with a strong science background in classrooms and those without, and found that the latter offer "significantly inferior" learning to children. "Such teachers display a closed pedagogy, based on the presentation of unrelated facts and fail to extend children as they lack the knowledge to see the significance of a child's questions; why one topic is central and another is peripheral; how the topic will developed in the coming years of a child's education, or examine the reasons justifying the scientific view," they said.
Their study, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, says the difficulties caused by lack of subject knowledge "may be the rock on which primary science education may founder".
Osborne and Simon say there should be in the short term a set of "minimalist requirements, albeit still broad and balanced", allowing teachers to teach aspects of science they feel comfortable with, and which place more emphasis on investigative work. The aim should be to achieve quality in children's learning, rather than quantity, they say.