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22 July 2022
By Tracy Hailstone-Ahern - Improvement Adviser

Primary Science - Does Your Curriculum Work for Your Pupils?

Estimated Reading Time - 4 minutes 30 seconds

Science is the first subject we encounter as we open our eyes for the first time and try to make sense of the world around us.

Our life of exploration from this point on continues this adventure using our senses, questioning skills and investigation. Development of scientific knowledge is less certain dependent on those around us and having the language to assist in making sense of what we are exposed to. This is where confident teachers and other significant adults come in. Providing the vocabulary and meaningful experiences that support learning from the early years and throughout their life long learning journey.

EEF research - A review of evidence on primary school science teaching November 2021 states that:

"Society depends on science to respond to pressing problems, from the COVID 19 pandemic to the climate crisis, so it is important to ensure the foundations for critical scientific literacy are laid in the primary school. Children should be provided with a science education that enables them to appreciate what science is, how it works, the social nature of its practices, and its relevance to the lives of individuals and society. This requires subject leaders and teachers to design and use effective curricula and pedagogies to develop substantive and disciplinary knowledge (Ofsted 2021).

Harlen (2015) argues that science should be focused on the development of a number of 'big ideas' of science, and about science. These 14 big ideas, based on discussions with international science and science education experts, are culturally significant, have explanatory power, aid understanding, and lead to enjoyment and satisfaction. These are not the basis of the current national curriculum for England which applies to all local authority maintained schools (Department for Education 2014), academies and free schools are able to determine their own broad and balanced curriculum.

Despite being a core subject in primary education in England, there is concern expressed about the amount of science taught in many primary schools, and the observed drop in pupils' performance in biennial national sample tests (Ofsted 2021). Many children experience primary school science as consisting of fun activities rather than enabling deep learning (Bianchi, Whittaker and Poole, 2021), and few (5%) primary teachers hold specialist science degrees and teaching qualifications in these subjects (Royal Society, 2014).

For science knowledge to be gained, applied in scientific context and built upon, the science curriculum needs to become more cyclic. For instance, traditionally Earth, Moon and Stars is a theme that is visited in Year 5 or Year 6 within the National Curriculum and taught almost as a stand alone series of lessons. However, for pupils to understand the phases of the moon their learning needs to build on how shadows are formed and how light enters the eye allowing us to see.

Teachers subject knowledge in science is very dependent on their own education in science and if this does not have a strong basis the lessons become activity led rather than objective led building on prior knowledge.

In April 2021, Ofsted published its report into science, its first in a series of subject reviews. It shared that the following principles were key factors in high quality teaching:

  • planning the science curriculum so that pupils build knowledge of key concepts and the relationships between them over many years; this prevents pupils from seeing science as a list of isolated facts
  • pupils remembering long-term the content that has been taught; this is because building domain-specific knowledge leads to expertise
  • explicitly teaching pupils the concepts and procedures needed to work scientifically
  • starting curriculum planning right from the early years by introducing pupils to wide-ranging vocabulary to describe the natural world (these words should not be overly technical)
  • teachers giving clear explanations that build on what pupils already know and explicitly focus pupils’ attention on the content being learned
  • making sure practical work has a clear purpose, forms part of a wider teaching sequence and takes place only when pupils have enough prior knowledge to learn from the activity
  • science teachers and technicians having access to regular, high-quality subject-specific continuous professional development (CPD); this is especially important given that many science teachers are teaching outside of their subject specialism.

However, the quality of science lessons in primary schools pupils are exposed to is still to variable. Dependent on the subject knowledge of the teacher, strength of the curriculum and accessibility of resources.

What Can We Do?

So, moving forward how can these anomalies be addressed so that the quality of science education across schools nationally including academies improves?

There needs to be a carefully sequenced curriculum that builds on prior knowledge in progression building on the Early Years Foundation Stage framework.

A glossary of scientific terms in English and where possible other key languages that is prevalent within the schools.

A strong CPD cycle to develop staff scientific subject knowledge and confidence so that all teachers are able to build on the pupils prior subject knowledge with meaningful, relevant and sequential learning experiences.

The Education People are aware that this is an issue for many schools so our team of advisers are working over the summer to create what is needed for schools.

About the Author

Tracy has spent 22 years in primary schools, with 19 of those in senior leadership including successful headship. During some of this time she alongside being a headteacher also inspected in the Eastern region as an Ofsted inspector.

Most of Tracy’s experience is in schools of high deprivation and improving leadership in schools that need to rapidly improve leadership capacity and impact. Tracy’s work with disadvantaged pupils and their improving life chances spans experiences in training for schools in Kent and beyond.

More recently, in the last three years, Tracy has worked with Schools and Academies on improving leadership and its impact on the quality of provision for all. She prides herself on adapting training and support in a bespoke manner to meet the needs of the school whilst following national guidance.