Primary science on a shoestring

20th May 2016 at 00:00
Science is a chronically under-funded subject, but this teacher says you can make a little go a long way

YOU DON’T get much for 25p if you’re trying to buy science resources. It is enough to get you a battery, a battery holder and little else.

So some sympathy, please, for the primary school teacher looking to plan exciting practical science lessons. Just 25p per pupil is the average budget they have at their disposal. I have even heard colleagues talk about having only £250 for an entire year of science.

These tightened budgets come at a time when primary teachers are relying on resources more than ever. We now have new science topics to teach and, confident or not, when you are teaching something new, you’re more likely to rely on resources to enliven it. On 25p per pupil, though, that is often not possible.

If all this was not enough to contend with, there is a third element to add to this volatile pedagogical compound: time. When it comes to science, far too many of us have only an hour a week to devote to the subject.

Just one hour per week for a core subject such as science is criminal, as are the constrained budgets, but if this is the reality we are forced to live, what exactly are we expected to do in that hour with little money? Here’s a guide to how primary teachers can take science off the page and bring it to life without the proper equipment and with limited time constraints.

Get Creative

Where we can, we “make do and mend”. Primary teachers have been getting inventive and working to near-zero science budgets for a long time now. Often, this means collecting a variety of resources from home to take into school. I have investigated friction using carpet and porcelain tiles; used jelly babies to explore the molecular structure of solids, liquids and gases; and made fossils using flour and coffee granules to create textured dough.

Use natural resources

Much of the new curriculum has made it harder to be creative on a shoestring, and yet it does encourage you to go outside. The need to study plants, habitats and animals has pushed teachers to use a readily-available free resource: the school grounds. You can observe plants, birds and insects with mini-microscopes outside, or take specimens back to class. Species can be identified using free classification keys, downloaded from the websites of organisations like the Woodland Trust and the RSPB.

For some examples of primary science on a budget, try these simple experiments.

Kulvinder Johal is assistant headteacher and science coordinator at Northbury Primary School in Essex


Question: What type of surface is the best for playing with a toy car and why?

You will need:

Samples of a variety of floor surfaces, such as carpet, porcelain tiles and linoleum. The local carpet shop will usually be able to provide you with small offcuts for free

A toy car or another wheeled toy

A stopwatch or a tape measure

A piece of wood to use as a ramp


1 Pupils should examine the different floor coverings. Which do they predict will be the best surface for a wheeled toy, and why?

2 Cover the ramp with one of the floor materials. Position the car at the top of the ramp and let it go.

3 Pupils can either use a stopwatch to measure the speed of descent or a tape measure to measure how far the car travels.

4 Repeat the experiment for each of the different floor coverings. Pupils should record their findings and then compare the results.

Expected outcomes:

The smoothest surface will be the best, because it creates the least friction. Rough surfaces generate more friction, which means that the car will not be able to travel as quickly or as far.


Question: What is the best material to keep your food warm?

You will need:

A selection of materials that could be used to wrap food, such as foil, cling film or kitchen roll

Sausage rolls, fish fingers or another food that can be heated and easily wrapped

Access to an oven or microwave



1 Heat up your chosen food in an oven or a microwave before covering (do not use a microwave to heat any food wrapped in foil).

2 Use the thermometer to measure the starting temperature of each piece of food. Record each of these temperatures to ensure that it’s a fair test.

3 Wrap each piece of food in a different material and ask pupils to decide at what time intervals they will measure the temperatures again.

4 Take the temperature of each piece of food at least three times after wrapping, at evenly spaced intervals.

5 Ask pupils to record their data in a way that they feel is most appropriate.

Expected outcomes:

The food will cool down more slowly when wrapped in a material that does not conduct heat well. These materials are called thermal insulators. Things like plastic and wood are good thermal insulators.


Question: Why do we need calcium in our diets?

You will need:

Two hard-boiled eggs

Two beakers

A measuring cylinder or jug

Vinegar (120ml)

Water (120ml)

Washing-up bowl


1 Measure 120ml of vinegar into a beaker and 120ml of water into another beaker. Label each beaker so you know which is which.

2 Place one egg into the vinegar and one into the water, as a control. Record the time and date.

3 Leave the eggs untouched for 24 to 48 hours.

4 When the pupils come back to their eggs, ask them to look carefully at both beakers and to think about the best way to record any changes that they can see.

5 Remove the eggs carefully. Use the measuring cylinder to find out how much liquid is left in each beaker. Which egg has absorbed the most liquid?

Expected outcomes:

The egg that was in the water will look the same, but the egg that was in the vinegar will no longer have a shell; only the membrane that surrounds the white and yolk will be left. The egg shell is made from calcium carbonate, which contains calcium. This makes it very strong, like bones. The vinegar is a weak acid that reacts with the calcium carbonate to remove the calcium and make a new substance, leaving the egg without a shell and slightly bouncy – just as bones would be without calcium.

Free science equipment and easy activities with The Crunch

The Crunch is a new Wellcome Trust initiative to get the nation talking about our food, our health and our planet. The Wellcome Trust will be sending every school and college in the UK a free resource kit packed with activity plans and science equipment. Resources are also available online at

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today