Too many good ideas is a problem we can live with

Taking part in the pilot scheme to improve science teaching helped make a big difference to Mike Collins's school

This term sees the national launch of the key stage 3 strategy in science. At Hengrove School, Bristol, we have been piloting it for the past two years.

What has it meant to us? First of all, it is not a revision or replacement of the national curriculum. The focus is very much on "how to" rather than "what to" teach.

Walking around the science department I see plenty of evidence for how it's worked. On the walls are posters outlining what students should do to move from one level to the next, follow-on work from an in-service course on progression. Still tacked to the whiteboard in head of science Pat Feltham's room is an investigation planning sheet covered in Post-its on which students have written variables and then moved them around while the class discussed what to control and what to measure.

This was an idea brought back from a course on science investigations; so simple and effective that colleagues were saying "Why haven't we done this before?"

All the teachers in the department have been involved in one way or another. After completing an initial audit, where we reviewed what was going well and what needed work, the training courses began. Most of these involved a "pre-course" task and some follow-up work. All of us chose who should attend which courses.

Work on transition from key stage 2 to 3 was a big hit. Chris Williams, second in faculty, was very clear: "The biggest difference for me is I now trust the levels of students coming into Year 7."

As a preparation for the course on transition, Chris had visited a Year 6 science lesson in one of our partner primary schools. He was enormously impressed with what students were doing in Year 6 and the depth of their understanding.

Consequently, our Year 7 work has been revised: gone is the first half term's "introductory topic". I imagine that the response of many teachers nationally will be: "But we already knew that" or "We do that anyway". This should be no surprise. What the strategy presents are tried and tested best ideas. At Hengrove the big difference is that the pilot invested time and money in teachers' professional development. We have had time to work on developing new ideas and materials and fresh insights into familiar work; our work on investigations with the Post-its is a good example. Pat Feltham was very positive about what we learned from the initial audit. "It helped us really focus on the areas that needed most improvement," he said.

The audit revealed that we needed to develop short-term, lesson-by-lesson planning. Hengrove is a school in a challenging urban area. During the pilot, we shared in-service with other colleagues from around the city. Sharing ideas for short "lesson starters" or how to make plenary sessions more than just telling students what they have just learned gave us lots to develop within the department.

Our work has paid off. Ofsted paid a visit last November: all our teaching at key stage 3 was at least satisfactory, with much of it good or better, a marked improvement.

The strategy means spending money on Year 9. Our department bought revision guides and workbooks for every student. They greatly appreciated having books in which they were encouraged to write. They were even spotted in the dining hall proudly sharing and discussing their new books.

A week-by-week programme was set out by Phil Brooks, KS3 science co-ordinator, and sent to parents. We were also able to pay teachers to run a well-attended Easter revision school and to hire an additional teacher to run booster classes once a week during term for a targeted group of students.

So it really has made a difference. Improvements are not instant - changing the way we teach, refining and improving what we teach, takes time. There have been improvements in our results, but not stratospheric ones. The proportion of students achieving level 5 or better in the KS3 national tests has improved from a low of 18 per cent in 1999 to 34 per cent this year.

There is, however, no doubting the enthusiasm of the staff for the work they have been doing. I encouraged them to pick out the downsides of the strategy.

Finally, they came up with "too much material in some of the units, too many units". Too many good ideas is a problem we can live with. And, in fact, the national strategy does seem to have learned from the pilot: there are far fewer different units in the strategy as implemented nationally.

Our message to colleagues is: "Make the most of the opportunity!"

Mike Collins is deputy headteacher of Hengrove School, Bristol

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