Primary science is not working

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Science is suffering as the literacy and numeracy push skews the primary curriculum, report David Bolden, Peter Tymms & Christine Merrell Durham.

This article outlines some findings from a Wellcome Trust-commissioned review of evidence from the past fifty years of science education in English primary schools (Tymms, Bolden & Merrell, 2008). We argue that the current approach to primary science and the drive to raise standards in literacy and numeracy could and should be improved through radical new approaches.

The teaching and learning of science in English primary schools has undergone many changes in the last sixty years. Immediately after World War II there was very little science taught in primary schools. Since then, teachers and pupils in English primary schools have been subjected to major changes in curriculum and assessment with respect to science.

Following concerns expressed in the 1950s about a shortage of scientists and the potential impact this was likely to have on the country’s economic prosperity, science in the primary curriculum became more prominent. In the 1960s and 1970s the work of Piaget had a considerable influence in primary education; this was encouraged by the wide spread involvement of psychologists in the education of teachers.

During the 1980s there was a general decline in the belief in fixed stages of development but the idea that children develop their own ideas was preserved in the notion of constructivism. At about the same time there was a shift in the focus of teacher education from a theoretical understanding of teaching to competence in practical skills. Psychologists became less involved in teacher education and there was a shift towards the more practical aspects of training teachers. The introduction of the National Curriculum in September 1989 heralded science as a ‘core’ subject but it brought with it statutory assessments and a rigid inspection system. Research across a number of indicators relevant to science education in English primary schools suggests that the current approach and the recent drive to raise standards in literacy and numeracy could be improved.

Attainment in science

One would imagine that the position of science as a core subject would lead to an increase in attainment. Statutory test results from the end of Key Stage 2 assessments do indeed show a steep rise in the science attainment of pupils between 1995 and 2000, when it reached a plateau and has since remained stable.

Up until the year 2000, government sources were keen to cite such increases as real improvements in standards in primary schools, but the reliability of such figures has been called into question (Tymms and Fitz-Gibbon, 2001; Tymms, 2004). Tymms (2004), working predominantly with mathematics and English scores, showed that the dramatic rises seen in these subjects at the same time overestimated the extent to which standards were increasing in primary schools. This finding was subsequently confirmed by the Statistics Commission (Statistics Commission, 2005).

A much more modest increase in standards in science is supported by statistics from other independent sources. For instance, the Performance Indictors in Primary Schools (PIPS) Project based at the University of Durham shows only a modest increase. An analysis of PIPS Year 6 science data from the same 54 schools between 1999 and 2007 shows that average raw scores rose by a relatively small amount (the interested reader should also see Massey et al, 2003).

We believe the present approach involving high stakes tests and the publication of the results encourages a view of science as a body of facts. It seems to have constrained the development of science education in a more general sense and the curiosity of children. Indeed, very recent research by Collins et al. (2008) suggests that the recent abolition of testing in science at Key Stage 2 in Wales is having a beneficial effect on the development of Year 6 children’s knowledge and understanding of science.

It is well established that young people’s attitudes to school science become less positive in the late primary phase and continue to decline as they progress through secondary school. However, results from international comparative surveys in 1995 and 2003 also suggest a trend for young people in English primary schools to ‘like’ science less than they used to (TIMSS, 1995; 2003). Research suggests this is not confined to the UK but English pupils’ attitudes towards science are below the international average of other nations.

There is also agreement concerning primary teachers’ attitudes towards the teaching of science. In particular, primary teachers have been for a long time characterised by a lack of confidence in their knowledge and competence to teach science. In the 1970s, primary teachers’ science subject knowledge was identified as the major obstacle to good quality science provision in primary schools and similar concerns were expressed in the 1990s.

Although research suggests their confidence to teach science has improved, a UK-wide survey of primary teachers in 2005 found that half still cited lack of confidence and ability to teach science as the issue of major concern in primary science (Murphy & Beggs, 2005). Evidence suggests that what increases primary teachers’ confidence in their ability to teach science is good quality in-service training.

Science as a ‘core’?

The amount of science taught in primary schools has increased over time, jumping abruptly when the 1988 Education Act came into effect and made science a ‘core’ subject in state schools. In 2003 the Department for Education and Skills published its primary national strategy and set out as one of its priority targets to “extend the sort of support provided by the literacy and numeracy strategies to all the Foundation subjects” (DfES, 2003).

This was followed a year later by the DfES’s Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners, which stated that “we face a challenge to make sure that every subject is taught well in primary schools and that every child gets the benefit of a rich, well-designed and broad curriculum”

(DfES, 2004, p.34). Despite this rhetoric, there is increasing evidence to suggest that science is being undermined as a ‘core’ primary subject and that the drive to raise standards in maths and English dominates the primary curriculum (Boyle & Bragg, 2005).

More recently, Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), announced a ten-year Children’s Plan, which will include a “root-and-branch” review of what is taught in the primary curriculum to allow “more time for reading, writing and maths”. Sir Jim Rose, the former director of inspection at Ofsted, is carrying out the review. In his brief, Balls set out the key objectives: “to enable schools to strengthen their focus on raising standards in reading, writing and numeracy.

I also want pupils to be introduced to a broad range of subjects in primary school, including languages… Your review is focused on the curriculum and is not considering changes to the current assessment and testing regime.” (Balls, 2008)

The letter also refers explicitly to the possibility of whether “pupils’ interests might be better served by studying fewer subjects during primary education, particularly in Key Stage 1” (ibid.). The lack of any reference to science may suggest a threat to the continuing existence of science as a ‘core’ primary subject.


Our interpretations of the findings of the review lead us to argue that the current approach to primary science in schools is not fostering scientific thought and curiosity to the extent that may be possible. The major problem lies in the way in which the results of the current assessment procedures in schools in England are used. Published in the performance league tables in the national media, the results of SATs tests are used to hold teachers and schools accountable. This must encourage narrow approaches even if the tests themselves are designed to encourage clear thinking.

They pressurise teachers to teach to the test rather than encourage them to teach for conceptual understanding.

We therefore think that there is an argument for a careful reconsideration of the current approach to the teaching and assessment of science in English primary schools. We recommend a four-stage strategy.
Firstly, we need a national debate about the purpose of science in primary schools. We suggest that the purpose of science in primary school should be to foster a sense of curiosity and positive attitudes in the young child. Do others agree?

Secondly, establish the evidence base. We recommend a systematic review of well-evaluated approaches to primary science education from across the world.

Thirdly, develop new approaches and trial them. It is unlikely that the evidence base will lead to a well-defined way forward. Consequently, we recommend that there be a call for proposals for the development of a primary science curriculum and that a small number are funded as trials.

Lastly, we recommend that the efficacy of new and existing programmes should undergo scientific evaluation involving randomised controlled trials.

The full review, which was commissioned by the Wellcome Trust as part of Perspectives on Education, their new series of reports on UK science education, can be downloaded from:

Taken from School Leadership Today (formerly Managing Schools Today).

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