Making science pay its way in schools and beyond

This article was first published in the Times Education Supplement in November 2015
Reports such as those from the Royal Society, CBI and Ofsted say UK science education isn’t as good as it should be. In fact it’s a long way off the mark. Many schools are struggling to recruit, and critically, retain excellent science teachers.
Why? After all there’s considerable money invested in our science education, both in terms of its provision in primary and secondary schools and by government trying to stem the shortage of good quality science teachers leaving the profession and encouraging good potential teachers to enter it.
Teaching science effectively to guarantee proper comprehension of the subject requires routine and regular practical work. This means having knowledge, a huge range of experimental procedures and apparatus, not to mention the teaching experience and confidence to deliver it meaningfully in the classroom. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, not all of these essential elements are available all of the time which leads to disengaged students and teachers. It’s a vicious circle and one that’s proving hard to break.
However, there is a viable solution to hand but it’s been widely overlooked. By embedding proper science teaching support and practical lessons in primary schools, the major pain points for teachers and students – at primary and secondary – will be eased considerably.
But to make it work, with the vast majority being non-science specialists, primary teachers need much more practical support to give them the confidence and resources necessary. This calls for stimulating routine science teaching CPD throughout the year; fun and inspiring schemes of work and lesson plans; all of the science equipment they need for their classes to work in pairs; easy access to experienced colleagues and online resources to seek advice and supplement their lessons.
A tall order, but such an approach is affordable. By using science to develop cross curricular links across the whole school, the budget can be allocated from several components of a primary school’s budget, including training, learning resources across several subjects and use of pupil premium (and sometimes PTA funding). Maths and English lessons can draw upon rich science activities, helping develop creative writing, robust debating and reasoning skills from evidence students have generated from their experiments. There are also opportunities to create further links to DT, art, music, history and geography lessons.
To achieve high quality results and deliver an effective science curriculum, a realistic budget for an average single form entry, based upon the observations above, should be at least £6K per year. This would provide for a minimum of one staff science teaching CPD day per annum for all teachers and associated TAs in KS2; a wide range of science equipment sufficient for all pupils to work in pairs; ICT science teaching support licenses, science teaching support literature and assessment software / licenses.
After four years, more pupils will enter the secondary phase fully equipped to talk the language of science and undertake independent scientific investigations with minimal help. This means that secondary science teachers have to spend less time teaching the basics, which allows them to teach more exciting and engaging science lessons.
Disruptive behaviour becomes a relatively ‘non issue’ because students are engaged in their lessons, allowing girls, particularly in mixed schools, not to be put off science because of poor class behaviour. And ultimately teachers become far less stressed about delivering science lessons, actually enjoying planning ‘wow’ memorable science lessons. They then become effective at ensuring pupils learn more and properly develop their critical thinking and problem solving skills.
A systematic approach to supporting practical science teaching at primary level will ultimately mean more pupils excelling at GCSE, electing to study science at A Level and degree level. In turn, the country gains more scientists, some of the best returning to education. This is when investment in science really starts to pay for itself!
Alternatively, we can continue spending more time and money improving the quality of advertising campaigns for attracting our best and brightest science graduates into teaching, spending more money on higher salaries for science teachers, enhancing the quality of science teacher training and mentoring for would be science teachers. But in isolation these just won’t break that vicious circle.