Project Manager – Education, Wellcome Trust
Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.(Albert Einstein)
The history o primary science in England over the last 50 years has in many ways been a positive one,with postwar concerns about a shortage o scientists leading to science becoming more prominent rstin secondary and then in primary schools. Certainly, over the last 30 years most would agree that primaryschool science has taken great steps orward and beneted rom much o the special attention andsupport that its position as a core subject coners.Nevertheless, despite this apparently enviable situation, both the rationale behind having a corecurriculum and the aims o the science curriculum within it have remained unclear and ears havemounted about the status o (and time allotted to) science being undermined (or example, Boyleand Bragg, 2005). As a core subject, science also nds itsel subject to the current national testingregime, whose multiple purposes – at national, local, school and pupil levels – have resulted in a high-stakes system widely criticised across the education world, not least or its inevitable narrowing o thecurriculum, where teachers eel bound to ‘teach to the test’ (or example, Collins
, 2008).In this report, the rst o a series o perspectives on UK science education, two leading voices inprimary science – Wynne Harlen and Peter Tymms and colleagues rom Durham University – take ahistorical look at primary science in England over the 20th century and give their views on its place in theNational Curriculum and on the causes and implications o trends in attainment, attitudes and teachingapproaches. The rst piece, by Wynne Harlen, considers the purposes o school science education and the positiono science in the National Curriculum. The article charts the history o primary science through the 20thcentury and looks at the arguments presented regarding the advantages and disadvantages o thestatus o science as a core subject. It examines the extent to which assessment and its uses can alterthe quality o primary science education and argues that national tests should be replaced by moderatedteacher assessment. The article concludes by suggesting a number o steps that ought to be taken whenconsidering the position o science as an element o the primary curriculum. The second piece, by Peter Tymms, David Bolden and Christine Merrell at Durham University, drawson a range o indicators relevant to primary science education in England over the last 60 years, andlooks at trends in children’s attainment levels and attitudes towards science as well as the attitudes o primary teachers. Although statutory test results at the end o Key Stage 2 rose dramatically between1995 and 2000 (where they reached a plateau and have since remained stable), the article nds thatonly a much more modest rise is supported by independent data; the authors suggest this may be theresult o increased amiliarity with tests. They also highlight worrying evidence to suggest that children’sconceptual understanding o science has actually decreased since the 1970s.On attitudes, Tymms
look at the continuing trend or young people’s attitudes to school science tobecome less positive as they move rom primary school to secondary school and or young people to‘like’ science less than they used to. While international comparisons suggest that this is not conned tothe UK, they also suggest that English pupils’ attitudes towards science are below average compared toother participating nations. As highlighted by the Wellcome Trust’s
,2005) and many others, the authors draw attention to continuing concern about primary teachers’ lacko condence in their knowledge and competence to teach science, although, more positively, there aresigns that this is starting to improve.