We cannot afford to get science education wrong

Kids need to know that curiosity didn’t kill the cat. Julien Behal/PA

Science gives young people the tools to understand the world around us and the ability to engage with contemporary and future issues, such as medical advances and climate change. That is why science should be taught to students up until the age of 16. However, Ofsted’s recent report on the state of school science reports worrying trends in the way science is being taught.

A particular worry is the status of practical science in our schools. Studying science without experiments is like studying literature without books. Experiments are an inherent part of science and are vital for further study and employment. They bring theory to life, nurturing pupils’ natural curiosity, teaching them to ask questions and helping them to understand phenomena such as magnetism, acidity and cell division. Practical work gives them valuable skills and abilities, such as precise measurement and careful observation.

Ofsted reports the ways in which the best schools use practical investigation to teach and inspire students. However the report also found that many schools provide pupils with “limited opportunities to work independently, particularly to develop their individual manipulative skills in practical work” and that many practical skills are “underdeveloped”.

It is worrying then that Ofqual, the independent regulator of examinations and qualifications, has proposed that in the future, practical assessment will not form a part of students’ A Level science grades. Ofsted and Ofqual have both reported that assessment criteria strongly dictate what is taught in schools. If practical skills do not count towards A Level grades, there is a real danger that schools and colleges will give students even fewer practical experiences than they have now.

Declining standards

Universities and employers are concerned. Recent research from the Gatsby Foundation found that 57% of university science staff surveyed believed that practical skills of new undergraduates had declined in the past five years. This is a large proportion – nearly twice the proportion who felt that scientific knowledge had declined. Many said that they assume that undergraduates will come in with little or no practical skill, and need to be trained accordingly.

Ofsted’s survey also notes that science is a declining priority in English primary schools, with nearly half of those visited not setting targets or monitoring pupils’ performance in science. The findings suggest that many primary school teachers are failing to recognise science as a core subject alongside English and mathematics.

There are some positives. Ofsted notes that the best science teaching is driven by skilled leaders who set out to sustain young people’s natural curiosity. According to the Wellcome Trust Monitor, an independent nationwide survey the most commonly selected factor that 14- to 18-year-olds identified as having encouraged them to learn science was “having a good teacher” (58%), and the most commonly selected factor for discouraging them from learning science was “having a bad teacher” (43%). That is why I fully support Ofsted’s recommendation that school leaders should ensure science-focused development of teachers.

Initiatives like the Primary Science Quality Mark and National Science Learning Centre are helping to develop and celebrate the quality of science teaching and learning in schools. They must be encouraged, but the report shows that much more needs to be done. The future of science depends on the quality of science education today, and we cannot afford to get it wrong.