We know that science is squeezed out by English and maths in primary schools, but now research shows that it is also “often the poor relation” in primary initial teacher training courses, too.
A previously unreported study from the Wellcome Trust raises particular concerns about courses in which trainees do not formally observe science lessons, and from which they start their careers unprepared for assessing how their pupils are doing in the subject.
The findings echo some of the experiences of Cheryl Hillyard, an NQT at West Earlham Infant and Nursery School in Norwich.
“We had only two days of science training over the whole course, which was a year,” she recalls. “A lot of the focus is on phonics and literacy and maths.”
When it came to science assessment, one brief session showed the trainees “a pyramid model” for evaluating pupils’ work. But, “because we only looked at it for an hour after lunch, we did not really go into a massive amount of depth”, says Hillyard.
“It would be quite useful having this tool, but it would have been more useful if we had actually had examples, and assessed some examples from previous years. I think I would probably struggle,” she adds.
And although she saw and helped her mentor teach science, she did not formally observe a single science lesson during her year’s training.
The Wellcome Trust report, published in November, examines the three main routes into primary teaching – BA or BEd, school-centred initial teacher training (Scitt) and PGCE. It finds that in all three “there is a feeling that there is insufficient time available to concentrate on science during their courses”.
A survey of teachers by the charity showed that 72 per cent thought their primary ITT gave them a good subject knowledge in science, but less than half – 43 per cent – thought it prepared them to assess primary science. And while 96 per cent had the chance to teach science, and 89 per cent had the chance to teach practical science during their teaching placements, only 64 per cent had been able to observe science.
'Not suitably prepared'
When asked what else they would like to see on their courses, the most common responses were, in descending order, practical experiments and lesson ideas, assessment of science and observing excellent science teaching.
The authors warn: “Teachers report that they did not feel suitably prepared to assess science and notably, providers made little reference to the assessment of science in describing their courses.”
Michael Reiss, professor of science education at UCL’s Institute of Education, recognises that “timing is always tight on initial teaching training courses”, with one-year PGCE courses more common than four-year BEds, and “other routes also existing that have even less time to learn science and how to teach science”.
It is a situation that he believes makes CPD more important than ever, “but subject-specific CPD is in short supply”.
That was the experience of another primary NQT, now teaching Year 4. Although positive about her Scitt course, once she started her first job, she found that it had left gaps in her armoury.
“We did loads of experiments but not much about the theory-based lessons,” she says.
Since starting her career, she has had CPD in English and maths. “I have asked to go on a science course,” she adds, “but there just haven’t been any that have come up, and no specific NQT ones either.”
One NQT who finished a PGCE last year was positive about the course, saying that her university “saw science as a core subject and we had many seminars and workshops based on the subject”.
But when it came to her teaching placements, there were only limited opportunities to teach the subject.
In her placements, one school had specialist teachers trained in a particular scheme, and another did not teach science every week. Both situations left her with few opportunities to teach science lessons.
For Hillyard, the compartmentalisation of science in ITT not only harms that subject, but other subjects, too. “I feel it’s undervaluing the subject when it can be used as a useful communication tool,” she says.
“Awe and wonder about the world can inspire some children’s thinking. Doing some fun science activities can stem into a really creative piece of writing; art can come from science. It encompasses a variety of different subjects. I don’t think it needs to be as standalone as it is. More time could have been given to science without undervaluing literacy or maths.”