Children as young as 11 are being turned off learning science, argue two reports released by the Wellcome Trust, funder of biomedical research and the largest charity in the UK. Published under the joint title of Perspectives on Education: Primary Science, they look at the past 60 years of primary science education, and suggest the need for change.
The first report was authored by Professor Wynne Harlen of the University of Bristol. She found that whilst it is important for science to be a core subject, the resulting SATs testing has had an impact on both learning and teaching. Judging schools and teachers on SATs results leads to “teaching to the test” and affects children’s understanding of science.
The second report, by Professor Peter Tymms and colleagues of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, drew similar conclusions. Tymms felt that children’s early science education was not having the desired effect on future results:
“We suspect that the current national approach to science in primary schools is not impacting on children’s scientific thought and curiosity as much as is possible. Despite the pass rates in public examinations later in secondary school, research suggests few students acquire a proper understanding of the science curriculum.
“The purpose of science in primary school should be to foster a sense of curiosity and positive attitudes in the young child. It should also guide the child in solving problems to do with the physical, natural and human worlds. There is now a strong argument for reconsidering the approach to science in English primary schools, and for doing this in a systematic, evidence-based way.”
Part of the problem is primary school teachers’ confidence in teaching scientific concepts. As most are not specialists in science, they can sometimes struggle to communicate ideas to pupils – indeed, there is evidence suggesting that some parts of science are “too difficult” for primary school teachers to teach. There does seem to be an improvement in teaching ability over time, however.
I’m not sure these findings apply only to science. Isn’t teaching pupils to pass exams, and only to pass exams, bad in every subject? I personally think that far too much emphasis is placed on a pupil’s performance in SATs, including streaming into different ability classes based on results. Really, they are designed to assess the quality of the teachers, not the knowledge of a pupil.
On the other hand, what other way is there to find out the ability of a teacher besides testing how well their pupils learn? Harlen’s report suggests “National tests should be replaced by moderated teachers’ assessment”, whilst Tymms calls for a debate on the purpose of science in primary schools, and the development of new approaches to teaching (without suggesting what these might be). It seems like a problem that won’t be solved any time soon.