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The Impact of Science Education in Primary School

5 months ago

Why Does Science Matter?

We live in very dynamic times! Brexit has thrown into sharp relief for people considerations they hitherto took for granted as demonstrated by recent headlines:

‘Britons Stockpiling food’1  ‘UK manufacturers stockpiling goods’2 ‘Brits stockpiling medicine’3 , ‘UKs exit from the EU could lead to higher energy costs’ 4 .  It has provided people a little insight into the enormously complex and varied ways in which the UK trades and works with a vast array of countries and organisations around the world and how this impacts on their daily lives.

More specifically it has initiated national discussion about the need to focus on how the UK sustains itself either within or without Europe and especially the role that our STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries contribute to our future economy, livelihoods and national safety.

Some recent reports show how significant the STEM sector is to UK PLC. ‘The UK  life sciences sectors supports 240,000 UK jobs and generates a turnover of around €81.00 billion per year’ 5

The economic contribution engineering enterprises to the UK economy for the financial year March 2015 to March 2016, engineering enterprises registered for VAT and/or PAYE in the UK generated 23.2% (£1.23 trillion) of the UK’s £5.3 trillion total turnover from all registered enterprises’ 6

The UK public today have probably never been as immersed in the activities and consequences of science as any generation before, from issues of Nuclear power, plastics in the oceans, global warming, increasing rise of antibiotic-resistance, gene editing in humans, the threat of pandemics, missions to Mars, the Chinese mission to the moon and synthesising food grade proteins for the mass market in the lab.

It should be very clear to everyone that a strong science base in the UK and a strong pipeline of future scientists is in everyone’s best interest.

How to Ensure the future Security of the UK Economy

In the first instance, continued significant capital investment in the STEM sector by government and industry is essential for our stability. (see ‘Where to get the best bang for the buck in the UK’ – report by OECD 7 ). Whilst this is picking, up after years of pretty sluggish inward investment, what is more important is the future supply of the nation’s scientists!

Over the last 20 years or so a myriad of different organisations from industry to government have invested in and targeted university science departments and even ‘A’ level colleges and high performing science GCSE educational institutions in an attempt to increase the number of high-quality science graduates.

Whilst this is a good thing, it is very much a case of ‘horse and bolted door’ for the enormous scientific capital the UK has been haemorrhaging for decades through lack of attention to pupils in primary schools.

Even the extremely well written and well-argued report by Sir Gareth Robert in 2002 – ‘Set for Success’ commissioned by the then government to identify how to increase the supply of the UKs STEM base, entirely failed to mention primary science even once!

This represents a systemic problem of opinion within the UK by UK government, industry and the public at large about how primary science teaching initially contributes to the UK economy and more specifically what is needed to support primary schools.

Many recent reports continue to point to the completely unacceptable STEM gap between girls and boys studying science at ‘A’ level in particular but equally as important are the lamentably low numbers generally applying for sciences at ‘A’ Level and therefore heading to University.9

Government and the STEM Community Must Focus Their Support on Primary Science in the Long-Term

Producing future scientists will take time. We need to start now and keep going!

There are ‘2’ vital ingredients in education if all individuals are going to reach their maximum potential, at whatever stage they are in, and this is especially important for the future of British science.

Aspiration + Time to develop the skill

Young adults leaving KS4 and KS5 education and heading to HE institutions driven with a real sense of aspiration about their scientific careers and armed with a finely-honed scientific skill set, is the best way of fuelling and securing the future of UK science.

2 research reports in particular on how pupils learn are germane to the theme of this article and these are ‘How People Learn’ Brain, Mind, Experience and school’10  and ‘Children’s perceptions of school science’11 (Murphy & Begg) in which it is clearly understood that pupils in the primary phase make a lot of future significant academic and personal decisions particularly whether they like science or indeed would like to be a scientist in primary schools.

Primary pupils future career aspirations really must be harnessed at this stage and then much more importantly if aspiration to become a scientist hasn’t been initiated at this stage it should be, and then the pupils given the tools they need to attain these aspirations. (see JRF report on Supporting Pupils Aspirations 12)

Time to Develop the Skills of Science – Ultimately all scientists of whatever age need to able to use and apply the Scientific Method as handed down to us from Ibn al-Haytham to Sir Isaac Newton. In the primary phase this is sometimes referred to as Working Scientifically.

Whilst historically, a lot of the national science curriculum has been focussed on ‘acquisition of fact’ there has been a change of focus quite rightly over the last 10 years within both the primary and secondary national curriculums to the real heart of science and that is to develop sound, practical, confident, problem solvers fascinated by the natural universe and a real desire to find things out!

As the famous physicist Richard Feynman famously put it “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” 13

Sound teaching of the scientific method within very clear contexts undertaken systematically over a number of years is essential for pupils to develop this hard-won skill and must routinely include opportunity for pupils to demonstrate their facility with it in their own investigations.

Everyone, the world over, especially young children love to be able to demonstrate and show off their skill at being able to solve something or find something out. Why should they be prevented from doing so?

From experience, (19 years of teaching science at secondary) the various key aspects of the scientific method from shaping sound questions, drawing hypotheses, making predictions to collecting the right data, analysing it to robust evaluation of scientific methodologies and assessing validity of data takes considerable time. (see these interesting articles on the challenges of teaching the scientific method 14 & 15)

Within primary schools in the UK, much of the timetable is currently dominated by a focus on English and Mathematics with most primary schools spending less than 2 hours per week on science16  This is simply insufficient.

Science lessons need to allow for pupils to fully complete at least a planning phase of an investigation or collecting meaningful data for analysis or proper evaluations – this means at least 4 hours per week.

Furthermore, a vast swathe of science curriculum support literature that schools use, simply does not facilitate development learning and application of the scientific method but rather just learning ‘a bunch of facts’ (see UK Gov Postnote 17 )

How is This Best Achieved? – Initiating and Supporting Aspiration + Developing the Skills

To excite and capture the nation’s future fine scientific minds and start to give them a solid scientific grounding it is essential that all primary schools in the UK have access to really exciting, inspirational science lessons delivered confidently by teachers who have a passion for science and kindle a nascent desire in their pupils to become scientists.

The extremely well written Wellcome report Primary Horizons 18 presents a raft of excellent recommendations that, if undertaken completely, would have significant impact on the outcomes for the nation’s future science capital starting in the primary phase.

Coupled with this, if primary schools were to follow all of the recommendations set out in the ‘Good Practical Science’ guide 19 by Sir John Holman we would establish a substantially sound base for our nation’s future and success.

In addition to these suggestions we would also propose the following key target groups and mechanisms of support to establish a long lasting ‘supply chain’ of scientists for our STEM sector:

  1. Pupils Support
    1. Young students need access to really inspirational, exciting and very hands on science lessons that are not prescriptive but allow them scope to develop their own interests and curiosity
    2. Pupils need access to a wide range of proper science equipment. They live in a world so rich with images of exotic science that when presented with a bit of water cress or melting snow in a science lesson can understandably switch off
    3. Pupils need to believe that what they are doing is sound science and set within clear context that fosters the ambition to take it further because they can see that their investigation is the start of something much bigger and very serious
    4. Each and every lesson should provide pupils with opportunity to go “Wow’! I want to see that again or do that some more!”
  2. Schools Support
    1. Freedom to allow teachers the time to plan and deliver exciting hands on practical lessons throughout each week of the year in recognition of the time that it takes to plan these kinds of lessons. 2hrs per week, clearly free for science lesson should be the minimum in schools with ample time to plan each lesson
    2. Schools need to have access to a real budget (£5K per annum+) that allows them to have access to the science curriculum providers – especially those that provide experimental resources for use in every lesson throughout the year to every year group. These lessons should deliver scientifically rich and exciting hands on practical science lessons
    3. Headteachers need to be given support for championing the value of science within their schools as part of preparing the scientists of the future from government and industry through a raft of measures from having funded access to world class facilities on school visits, interactive presentations by inspirational scientists, much more interaction with university science departments so that pupils can see where their future careers might be
    4. Fundamental change of the NC SATS assessments that includes at their heart an actual assessed physical scientific investigation to demonstrate their prowess at applying the scientific method – a simpler version of the famous RSC Chemistry Olympiad 20

Teachers Support

    1. 90+% of primary teachers are non- science specialists21 and often have concerns about teaching science lessons as such and so would welcome regular hands-on science CPD sessions that serve to foster the exhilaration in teaching a great science lesson and develop their confidence in teaching lessons that properly develop the scientific method for their pupils
    2. Much more clarity and support in being able to recognise and assess pupil’s ability to learn and apply the scientific method practically rather than simply testing factual recall. We live in the age of Google! Please see the wonderful TED talk by Sugat Mitra 22 on how pupils can learn without teaching but being able to apply the scientific method does require some oversight and guidance!
    3. Unfettered access to whole class sets of equipment for every lesson for all pupils to work in pairs (if required) that always works
    4. Clear incentivisation to teachers who champion and support pupil’s aspiration to become scientists from government and the STEM industry recognised as part of a national ongoing campaign not only to showcase British science but to demonstrate recognition of our rich national scientific heritage and their part in perpetuating it
  1. Parents Support
    1. The impact of parental support for their children as mentioned above both in terms of the aspiration for their children as potential young scientists of the future and also for supporting them on their academic journey simply cannot be overemphasised. There are practically ‘0’ parents who don’t want their children to find something they love learning and want to talk about! If schools can be provided with an easy access web portal that both informs parents about what their children are studying in science each week so that they know what is happening but also;
      1. Provides them teaching and learning support resources to help engage and encourage their children with their learning each week and extend it
      2. Shares with them the excitement the teachers and pupils have for their science and potential careers that they could have
  • Allows a www-based platform through which, in conjunction with the school, they can champion their children’s scientific work more broadly or even internationally
  1. Governors Support
    1. There is enormous pride and prestige in being the governor of a primary school and the impact that good governance has on a school from celebrating great teaching and successful learning to fund raising that helps schools access better resources and reducing teaching workload is inestimable. We would like to add that in addition to the thoroughly sound recommendations and guidance provided in the Wellcome document ‘Being Strategic : A guide for Governing Boards’ 23 Governors should be encouraged to include on every agenda:
  1. Discussion about what science is being covered in the term
  2. A celebration of individual pupil’s science investigations from each form group
  • Discussion about what teachers would like to do in science each term, from school trips to invited science specialist guest presenters
  1. Proposals to undertake regional or national science competitions like a ‘Rocket Challenge’ etc
  2. Potential university sponsorship for the school in terms of a pre-agreed whole school science research project

The UK has always flourished through consequence of our inventiveness, resilience, sense of humour, curiosity and hard work amongst other noble attributes!

In looking to the future as part of a world, changing more rapidly than it has ever done, we need to urgently shed the shackles of educational complacency and properly energise our wonderful young primary scientists of the future so that we can all continue to enjoy being part of a strong, confident, world class nation within the family of nations.

Proud and knowledgeable of our heritage, respected demonstrators of our national scientific passions and valued contributors to the scientific endeavours of the future.


References

1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-46111085

2https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/brexit-latest-stockpiling-manufacturers-purchasing-managers-index-survey-a8707366.html

3 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-07/brexit-preparedness-why-are-brits-stockpiling-food-medicine/10592332

4 https://www.energy-uk.org.uk/publication.html?task=file.download&id=6547

5 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/life-sciences-at-the-heart-of-the-uk-economy

6 https://www.engineeringuk.com/media/1576/7444_enguk18_synopsis_standalone_aw.pdf

7 https://doi.org/10.1787/2d01150c-en.

8 https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/robertsreview_introch1.pdf

9 https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2018/08/18/perspectives-2018-level-results/

10 https://www.nap.edu/read/10067/chapter/7

11 https://userswww.pd.infn.it/~lacaprar/ProgettoScuola/Biblio/Children_perceptions_science.pdf

12 https://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/default/files/jrf/migrated/files/england-education-aspirations-summary.pdf 

13 https://fs.blog/2015/01/richard-feynman-knowing-something/

14 https://smallpondscience.com/2013/05/30/were-teaching-the-scientific-method-incorrectly/

15 http://www.virginia.edu/blandy/blandy_web/education/Bay/Teaching&LearningSciMethod_McPherson.pdf

16 https://www.tes.com/news/most-primary-classes-get-less-two-hours-science-week

17 https://www.parliament.uk/documents/post/pn202.pdf

18 https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/wtx026628_0.pdf

19 http://www.gatsby.org.uk/uploads/education/good-practical-science-a-summary-for-schools.pdf

20 http://www.rsc.org/campaigning-outreach/outreach/educators/uk-chemistry-olympiad/

21https://royalsociety.org/~/media/royal_society_content/education/policy/state-of-nation/snr1_full_report.pdf

22 https://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves

23 https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/being-strategic-a-guide-for-governing-boards.pdf