Primary schools lack quality science teachers

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The majority of England’s primary schools do not have the science specialist teachers needed to provide a high quality science education according to a new report by the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science. 

The report analysed science and mathematics education in primary and early secondary education, finding a serious shortage of science specialist teachers in English primary schools. It recommends that every primary school should have a science specialist teacher and finds that to enable this, the number of science specialist teachers must triple.

The problems identified include a significant lack of specialist science and mathematics teachers in primary schools and an over-emphasis on ‘teaching to the test’.

Professor John Pethica FRS, Vice-President of the Royal Society, said: “Early education is a particularly formative time for young people, when they can either be inspired by the way that science helps them to understand the world around them, or switched off from exploring it. 

"It is essential that we ensure that children have positive experiences with science education, from teachers that are qualified to provide it.  The UK Government must increase the number of science specialist teachers at primary level to ensure that all children have the best start in science.”

The report found a significant shortage of science and mathematics specialists in primary schools and an urgent need to find an effective way to train and employ primary teachers with specialist knowledge of these subjects and the confidence to teach them well.

The report highlights that failing to have clear definitions of what is meant by primary specialists in science and mathematics is stifling the development of a clear policy on recruitment and retention. So long as this definition remains elusive, attempts to improve the quality, delivery and effectiveness of primary science and mathematics education will continue to be thwarted, it says.

The report also finds that the burden of assessment and over-reliance on centrally dictated targets has stifled creative approaches to teaching and learning in science and mathematics, and severely limited children’s experiences of these subjects.

The pressures on teachers and schools have been so great that too much classroom time has been dedicated to focusing on fact-retention, rather than introducing them to the excitement and inspiration of science through practical work and experiments. This over emphasis on ‘teaching to the test’ has masked an insufficient understanding of basic scientific concepts, which becomes problematic at secondary level when the subject is split into physics, chemistry and biology.

Investment in professional development for science and mathematics teachers of all levels of experience can make a significant difference to pupils’ engagement and attainment, according to the report. It therefore recommends that teachers undertake high-quality training throughout their careers in order to refresh and update their knowledge, as well as reinvigorate their teaching.

At the moment, investment in professional development has focused on secondary teachers, but it is crucial that organisations such as the network of Science Learning Centres and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics continue to be funded, despite the onslaught of budget cuts, and extend their focus to primary teaching, says the report. 

A dramatic change in the standard and availability of science and mathematics training for primary teachers is needed, supported also by the private sector and the wider science and mathematics community.

The Royal Society’s State of the Nation report, Science and mathematics education, 5-14, is the third in a series to assess the current situation for science and mathematics education in the UK. The report looks specifically at the structure and function of science and mathematics education for 5 to 14-year-olds and highlights some serious areas of concern. 

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