James Lewis

School Improvement Partner

  • All-round primary expert with specialist knowledge in Maths, English, History and Music.
  • Believes all education should be child-focused.

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Is science in Primary Schools in crisis?

The government says our future prosperity depends on science, but the most published results from Year 6 science sampling tests show that only 23% of Y6 children reached ‘expected’ levels in the subject and only 4% of primary OFSTED reports mention it in their Key Findings.

Half of school leaders say they stopped prioritising Science when the SATs ended in 2009, and the head of Ofsted said it’s ‘understandable’ that it is now ‘squeezed out’ by English and Maths.

A top scientist says teacher subject knowledge is ‘woefully inadequate’: this means we’re often nervous about teaching science, and unsure how to support it as an SLT.

The obvious responses to this crisis are recruitment, training, and a change in attitude:

  • How many Science graduates do you have on your staff? Is one of them your Science lead?
  • How much do you spend on Science CPD?

The science specialist Dan Sullivan says you need at least £6,000 a year (for a one-form entry primary school). Money is one way to assess the value of science in your school; other ways might include the number of references on your school development plan; whether your Science Lead gets ‘management time’ out of class; whether you set a minimum quota for science teaching; whether you have separate science books; how you assess and monitor science; and what place it has in your schedule for trips, assemblies and visitors to school.

Hold on a moment, there is plenty of hope for optimism ... 

Just by flipping the statistic above: if just under half of school leadership teams do not prioritise science, that means more than half of them do. So there are thousands of examples of best practice around the country which we can observe and learn from.

  • How do those leadership teams organise and deliver their Science curriculum?
  • What are their policies and practices?
  • What resources do they use?
  • What are their procedures for recruitment, training, and encouraging confidence among their staff?

How can we recruit science graduates into teaching?

Recruitment is a tricky nut to crack because the quality of the ‘pool’ is largely out of our hands. Yes, there are thousands of good NQTs, but not many of them are Science graduates, and even fewer that want to work in primary. It’s often suggested that this is because of money: some schools offer large financial incentives to attract science graduates, but there’s actually not much difference in the median salary five years after graduation. In fact, science graduates who leave teaching are generally doing so for a 10% pay cut. I’m afraid the real reason is more painful to admit: a post-doctoral biologist friend told me he wouldn’t consider teaching below A-Level because it’s not resourced properly, it doesn’t get enough curriculum time, it’s not respected, and the focus is overwhelmingly on dry subject content rather than skills.

From science facts to science skills

There is another response to all of this, which is that we move our focus from science facts to science skills. As I have said elsewhere, science is oozing with skills that are useful across the curriculum, but also in their own right:

  • observation
  • finding patterns
  • classifying and grouping
  • comparing
  • making fair tests
  • collecting and analysing data
  • researching from secondary sources.

You could add to this ...

  • teamwork through sharing resources
  • listening to instructions
  • problem solving
  • developing curiosity
  • improving children’s self-motivation as learners.

In our Raising Attainment in Science course we talk about how to develop these skills, but also how to assess them so that you don’t fall back on the more-easily-testable ‘facts’, which push your focus back to science content. Do we need to worry about pulling back on that content? We’re no longer tested on it, and my biologist friend says we aren’t teaching it correctly anyway. If we’re honest, do we think the ‘facts’ are going to stay static – or be relevant – in ten years’ time?

Business expert Martin Boehm says educators should teach ‘fundamental competencies’ (like ‘scientific enquiry’ skills) because we’re preparing children ‘for jobs that don’t exist yet’. As philosopher Karl Popper said, “the game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements… can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.”

So let’s celebrate the skills that science has to offer, and shift our focus towards them. Such a focus is more interesting for Science teachers, more fun for children, less reliant on shaky teacher subject knowledge, more useful across the curriculum, and better for child development as a whole. It will inspire them to continue Science when they’re older, and possibly even be the Scientists of the future.