Where we're going wrong on science

22nd December 2000 at 00:00
TAKE science. You would think that children at S1 and S2, taught by specialist teachers in classes of 20 or under, would make greater progress than those at P7 who have to make do with non-specialist teachers in classes as large as 33.

Then again, you might expect that a subject which has had millions of pounds thrown at it would be showing a good return in teacher confidence and healthy pupil attainment. On both counts you would be wrong, according to the latest report from the Assessment of Achievement Programme.

The 1999 survey of science skills and understanding of the 5-14 age-group presents an uninspiring picture. Progress at P4 is below expectation while only 50 per cent of P7 pupils can achieve level D, but bottom of the heap come the big brothers and sisters of S2 with the poorest attainment in all science areas.

This underachievement in 5-14 science is not a surprise but part of a pattern repeated through the past decade. Conventional wisdom states that it should not be there because of the large amounts of money that have been invested.

The first major development, Nuffield Science, was as long ago as the 1960s and it was followed by other famous names such as Science 5-13 and the Scottish Primary Science Development Project. Each had development officers, pilot studies in selected schools, national conferences, glossy newsletters, attractive teachers' books and workcards and final evaluations with which to pat themselves on the back. People were able to build their careers but where did they take the rest of us?

Not very far, according to the AAP report, which records poor pupil progress and many primary teachers lacking confidence in their knowledge and understanding of the science they are expected to teach.

Part of the deficit of confidence may arise from teachers' experiences as secondary pupils who dropped science after S2 but, that aside, the development of primary sciece has suffered from the same weaknesses as have afflicted other areas of the primary curriculum during the past 30 years. As the Cinderellas of the education system, primary teachers have never developed the confidence to stand up to the self-appointed experts.

We have been told that science should be exclusively practical and always in small groups, that it should be taught within integrated topics and that knowledge and understanding are not important since it is process skills which count. Add to that the penny-pinching attitude found within many schools where necessary materials are purchased only in small amounts or where the teacher is expected to make them or where textbooks are sneered at. No wonder progress is poor.

However, the obstacles can be overcome and, as always, management holds the key. Decisions have to be taken, after consultation, about matching the science programme to each year group, and the revised 5-14 guidelines now provide helpful grids. They also give examples of learning activities and teachers' notes.

Once decided, topics should be fixed and focus on science alone. Teachers will soon develop their background knowledge if they know that their topics are not going to chop and change. Good use of a classroom assistant could even help towards achieving the supposed advantage of small secondary school classes.

Realistic purchasing plans have to be made to resource each topic and that may include textbooks as reference for a class and to provide additional structure and confidence for the teacher. Some practical activities do need to happen in groups but teachers with good whole-class techniques can link new and previous learning more effectively as well as involving more children in questioning, discussion and drawing conclusions.

Words are easy, of course. Our own school contributed 20 P7 pupils to the AAP sample, so it's time to implement my own advice.

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