Down to a science

Bringing a ‘wow’ factor to children’s science lessons can benefit teachers too, says Dan Sullivan

Many primary school teachers find it hard to inspire and engage pupils with the wonders of science and, as a result, few primary school children move up to secondary school with the ambition to learn more science. 

According to the Royal Society, currently more than 96% of primary school teachers have no science qualifications. So, understandably, they’re uncomfortable about teaching a difficult subject and one that demands a significant knowledge base. 

Let’s add to this the findings of a key Ofsted report published in Maintaining Curiosity November 2013, which analyses a survey of science in 91 primary and 89 secondary schools.  The survey was carried out between 2010 and 2013 and found that although the quality of teaching was at least ‘good’ in the majority of the schools visited, science lessons in both primary and secondary schools often lacked sufficient differentiation to allow pupils to build on their prior learning. This meant few students made good progress and the more able ones were held back. 

The effectiveness of science teaching, the report noted, was much more likely be outstanding when teachers and subject leaders received science-specific training. The reality was that most primary teachers had not received such training, and most of the science leaders in both primary and secondary schools had not received leadership training that was specific to science.

Science teaching was more effective was when it was coupled to good literacy teaching, with interesting and imaginative science contexts, which helped pupils make good progress in both subjects. 

Alarmingly, but not unsurprisingly, a significant minority of leaders in the primary schools were failing to ensure full coverage of the science National Curriculum. The report noted they didn’t track pupils’ progress in science effectively and were not setting challenging targets for improvement. For these leaders, the report summarised, science was no longer a priority. 

Creating an interest in primary school children as early as possible is a crucial first step towards creating the first-rate scientists of the future. As a former head of science in a London secondary school I’ve seen so many students come through from primary schools that could have done well in science but were never interested. 

In their experience, science was boring. Teachers read from books or demonstrated a single experiment to the whole class. Nothing was hands-on and teachers did science because they had to rather than wanting to. It was something I was determined to tackle so I set about demonstrating that primary school teachers have the skills to deliver good science teaching – they just needed the right approach. 

Everything taught in primary schools must have multiple benefits, particularly for progression in literacy and numeracy. Time and resources are limited; youngsters are demanding in their hunger for interesting lessons. When children are taught science they need to become more confident with reading, writing and numeracy in all their classes. They need to work in pairs so they learn to observe, record and share with others in the class. They need resources for each lesson, carefully planned and easily accessible all in one place. Teachers should not have to worry about checking anything before the lesson – they should be able to go straight into the classroom and teach.

Cross-curricular links embedded in each science lesson can help children to develop their numeracy and literacy skills, as well as build an enthusiasm for science. This adds to their natural curiosity and really inspires them – it gives them that ‘awe and wonder’ that kids really should have in science. And if anyone has witnessed an ‘awe and wonder’ expression on a nine or 10 year-old child, you’ll know it’s a moment to treasure.

About Empiribox 

What we do isn’t rocket science. Empiribox comprises specific, topic-based sets of training for physics, chemistry and biology that covers the new National Primary Curriculum and significantly enriches it. The system includes topic-specific suites of equipment, delivered to the school on easy to use trolleys. 

Each of the twelve topics are delivered over a four-year cycle and comprises a total of 19 documents (one Scheme of Work, six lesson plans, six CPD documents and six Risk Assessment forms). Training is provided on all topics so that teachers are well prepared to deliver their ‘awe and wonder’ lessons. 

Having the right tools can build a school’s reputation as a provider of high-quality science education and improve the confidence and skills set of the teaching staff. It boosts the school’s results in the core science skills they need, leading to improved league table results and greater popularity and funding. 

For pupils, learning this way means they move on to secondary school with a solid skills-set and grounding in practical science. When I get comments like this from a 10 year-old girl I know I’m having a great day at work: “I used to hate science. Now I love it.” 

One pupil, aged nine, told me: “We used all kinds of equipment I’d never seen before and did lots of different stuff with it. I had such a good time. This is what I want to do when I grow up. Girls can be scientists too, I didn’t know that before!” 

Recently, a primary teacher at a London primary school was observed in a science lesson while using the Empiribox system when Ofsted came in. They were really excited about it – they hadn’t seen a primary lesson before where the children had so much knowledge. Not only was it clear they had knowledge, but they were also able to explain what they were doing to the Ofsted inspectors, who were amazed by the children’s experimental and investigative skills. 

Effective science teaching at primary school needs to be consistently exciting, interactive and investigation-based. That can only happen when teachers feel confident and their knowledge of the science that underpins each lesson helps make learning fun and relevant for pupils. 

We have a responsibility to bring about social and educational change that creates opportunities for young people – the scientists of the future. To do that, we have to ‘wow’ them at an early age. 

Dan Sullivan is founder of Empiribox.    

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