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Maintaining Curiosity: Ofsted’s triennial subject report into science

Published: Jan 17, 2014 8 min read

Carol Davenport

Director, Think Physics

University of Northumbria At Newcastle

“First, Maintain Curiosity”

Analogous to the Hippocratic oath, Brian Cartwright (HMI Science lead), thinks that this simple statement should be at the heart of science teaching.

Ofsted have recently released their triennial report on the state of science education in England, from early years to post-16. At a day conference organised jointly by Myscience and Ofsted, Brian Cartwright outlined the findings of the report.

There are many interesting points from the report, relevant to both classroom teachers and senior leadership teams.

At its heart, the report claims that there are three factors that linked the best teaching:

  • it was driven by determined subject leadership that pit scientific enquiry at the heart of science teaching and coupled it with substantial expertise in how students learn science
  • it set out to sustain pupils’ natural curiosity, so that they were eager to learn the subject content as well as develop the necessary investigative skills
  • it was informed by accurate and timely assessment of how well pupils were developing their understanding of science concepts, and their skills in analysis and interpretation so that teaching could respond to and extend pupils’ learning

Enquiry and Practical Work in Science

If you ask teachers what science should involve, practical work is high on the agenda.  There has been a lot of research in recent years about practical work, e.g. Getting Practical, and SCORE.  The Ofsted report doesn’t appear to call on this work particularly, but it does emphasize the importance of pupils carrying out individual practical work.

From the report:

104.    In the secondary schools visited for science it is common practice for practical work to be done in pairs. In other subjects with a practical base, such as design technology or art, individual work is the norm. Although working in pairs may help to develop students’ skills of teamwork and collaboration, it curtails personal initiative and independence, and can allow some students to avoid practical manipulations altogether. Inspectors observed boys doing practical work in larger, mixed-sex groups while the girls did the recording. It was unusual to see larger groups of four or more students working effectively at a practical investigation. Where it did work well, teachers had chosen the groups, and explained the roles for each student within the groups.

105.    Working in pairs may be one reason why so many post-16 and post-18 students struggle with the demands of advanced science practical work when they have to do it by themselves. Teachers should consider providing regular opportunities for students to work independently in Key Stages 3 and 4. Although teachers cited the lack of apparatus as a reason for students not working individually, in practice they had not thought through alternative classroom organisations as a solution. There is no reason why every student in a class has to do the same experiment at the same time; working through a series of investigations as a ‘circus’ and taking several lessons to complete the series should resolve any equipment shortfall.

This is a real challenge to science teachers. How could you structure your teaching to allow every student to carry out individual practical work?

During the Q&A session there was a question from Christine Harrison  about the importance of group based practical work for developing effective skills such as collaboration, and the potential loss of dialogue as a tool for learning. Brian Cartwright conceded that there would be times when there were benefits to doing practical work as a group, but also made the point that what Ofsted often saw was one effective pupil being watched by the rest of the group.

Specialist teachers and Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

One interesting, and perhaps counter intuitive finding, was that being taught by non-specialists in a science subject did not appear to affect the pupil outcomes. Much has been made of the higher funding for people training to be teachers who have a first in their degree. The assumption from the government appears to be that the more you know about a subject, the better you will be at teaching it.

However, Brian Cartwright suggested that what was perhaps more important was that teachers identified that they needed additional subject specific support, and they were then able to access the knowledge and skills required. Subject specific CPD was very important.

At the National Science Learning Centre we have found a similar effect. Leeds University carried out an external evaluation of our ‘Physics for non-specialists‘ course.  They looked at both teacher subject knowledge and pupil outcomes. Crucially, they were also able to compare the outcomes (test results) for classes in the same school taught about forces by both the non-specialist and a specialist physics teacher. The researchers found that those pupils taught by the non-specialist achieved higher results than those taught by the specialist.  This would back up Ofsted’s finding about the benefit of CPD.

Now, whilst Ofsted didn’t look at the quality of the CPD that teachers were doing, the fact that teachers were able to attend CPD courses was important. At this point, as a CPD provider, I did a little happy dance!

Girls in Physics

Unsurprisingly, ‘Maintaining Curiosity’ also highlighted the dearth of girls who go on to study physics post-16. The recent ‘Closing doors’ report by IOP also highlighted this pitiful state of affairs.

I was pleased to hear that Ofsted will be looking more closely at this issue, particularly by highlighting case studies of schools where a greater proportion of girls go on to study physics.  My initial facetious response was that the way to increase the proportion of girls studying physics would be to send them all to girls’ schools!  However, it is to be hoped that Ofsted (perhaps in collaboration with IOP) will be able to identify other, more realistic, options to support the increase of girls studying physics.

Curriculum time, triple science and raised expectations

The findings from the survey provided an interesting contradiction between the amount of time needed to teach triple science well and the achievement of students who study triple science. In some schools, the triple sciences are shoehorned into the same time slot for two sciences (core + additional). This inevitably leads to a lack of practical or investigative work in lessons.  This is a bad thing. Brian Cartwright appeared to feel that it would be better for students to study the core + additional route and spend time learning and enjoying science more. However, even allowing for schools that do this, the grades achieved by students who studied triple science were higher than those who studied core + additional regardless of their starting point. At first sight, this might seem reasonable. After all, schools generally choose students who have got level 6 and above to do triple science.  And certainly, the proportion of grades awarded would back this up ( see this blog on the numbers for each grade). However, Cartwright pointed out that when students with lower starting points are looked at – they too get higher grades doing triple science than if they do Core + Additional. It may be that this is down to teacher and student expectation, which drives the improved attainment.

Which does beg the question: if students are more likely to get higher grades doing triple science, even if that means doing it in a shorter time with less practical, should schools be encouraging students to take triple science?

Curriculum time for science primary schools

The withdrawal of the KS2 tests in science had led to some primary schools reducing the amount of time that was given to science.  Although Brian Cartwright wouldn’t be drawn into giving an absolute amount of time that should be given to science, he was clear that it was a bad idea to do ‘science days’ instead of regular science lessons.  What Ofsted found was that in many cases science ‘dropped off the radar’ and could sometimes not be taught at all.  He did, however, say that special days in addition to regular curriculum time were great.

Cartwright also talked about teaching science through ‘themes’ e.g. The Victorians. Although this could be successful, teachers needed to be careful that the science was being included and that the National Curriculum was actually being covered. There was a tendency for what was seen as ‘science’ actually to be more historical than scientific. And apparently toilets and plumbing feature in a lot of themes!

And to finish….

Overall, the picture painted by the report is that science is continuing to do okay, but there are areas for improvement.  There is more in the report than I’ve covered here, and I would recommend reading it further.  It’s also worth making sure that senior leadership teams (SLT) are aware of the issues with curriculum time, practical work and the importance of subject specific CPD.

You might find that Myscience’s new Self Evaluation Tool for science, which has been developed in conjunction with Ofsted, may be useful when looking at ways to identify the strengths and areas for development of science provision in your school or college.

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