Maintaining curiosity a survey into science education in schools

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Maintaining curiosity

A survey into science education in schools

The report sets out the findings of a new survey of science in 91 primary and 89 secondary schools, which was carried out between 2010 and 2013. This report will support schools in implementing the new National Curriculum.

Age group: 4 to 19

Published: November 2013

Reference no: 130135

Executive summary 3

Key findings 6

Recommendations 7

Part A: Science in primary schools 9

Overall effectiveness 9

Achievement 10

The quality of teaching 14

The quality of the curriculum 21

Leadership and management 23

Part B: Science in secondary schools 26

Overall effectiveness 26

Achievement 27

The quality of teaching 32

The quality of the curriculum 36

Leadership and management 39

Part C: Factors promoting achievement 41

Accurate evaluation 41

Making science interesting 42

Assessment for learning 43

Effective differentiation 43

Support for learning beyond lessons 44

More time for scientific enquiry 45

Notes 46

Further information 46

Publications by Ofsted 46

Other publications 47

Annex: Providers visited 48

Executive summary

Physicians take an oath that commits them to ‘first do no harm’. The best science teachers, seen as part of this survey, set out to ‘first maintain curiosity’ in their pupils. The most successful schools visited during this survey had adopted this as a key principle in teaching science and this not only fostered enthusiasm for the subject in their pupils but helped them to fulfil their potential.

We need better science education to secure a strong foundation for a successful and technological society. The new National Curriculum for 2014 sets out why we teach science in schools:

‘A high-quality science education provides the foundations for understanding the world through the specific disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics. Science has changed our lives and is vital to the world’s future prosperity, and all pupils should be taught essential aspects of the knowledge, methods, processes and uses of science. Through building up a body of key foundational knowledge and concepts, pupils should be encouraged to recognise the power of rational explanation and develop a sense of excitement and curiosity about natural phenomena. They should be encouraged to understand how science can be used to explain what is occurring, predict how things will behave, and analyse causes.’ 1

This report highlights the importance of teaching science for understanding. For pupils to achieve well in science, they must not only acquire the necessary knowledge, but also understand its value, enjoy the experience of working scientifically, and sustain their interest in learning it. Pupils in schools need to discover the concepts revealed through observing scientific phenomena and conducting experimental investigations for themselves. Then they are more likely to continue to study science and use that learning for work, for family, and to contribute as informed citizens.

The report also reflects and explores the concerns often voiced by employers, higher education, and the scientific community’s professional bodies, that too many school leavers are not well-enough equipped scientifically with practical, investigative and analytical skills. These are vital if young people are to flourish in a technological world and to contribute to economic development. The government’s review of GCSE and A-level qualifications provides a timely opportunity to ensure that the skills of scientific enquiry are assessed as an integral part of these qualifications.

The report is set out in three sections. Part A describes primary provision, Part B secondary provision, and Part C explains evidence-based factors that promote achievement in science. Inspectors visited 91 primary and 89 secondary schools, including 53 with sixth forms, and six special schools, between summer 2010 and spring 2013. The best teaching in these schools:

  • was driven by determined subject leadership that put scientific enquiry at the heart of science teaching and coupled it with substantial expertise in how pupils learn science

  • 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

  • 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.

The majority of the teachers observed were skilful in teaching interesting science lessons and inspectors judged the majority of the lessons (69%) they saw as good or outstanding. However, a minority of the secondary schools visited were preoccupied with test and examination results as ends in themselves at Key Stage 4, rather than aiming to establish pupils’ understanding and application of scientific ideas through practical enquiry-based approaches to learning.

Where disadvantaged pupils study academic GCSEs, they achieve as well as other pupils when teachers hold the same high expectations for all. GCSEs provide the greatest range of routes for pupils to access further science study at 16. However, too few 16-year-old girls continue studying physics nationally. Not enough subject leaders analyse why pupils of both genders either continue or stop studying science subjects after the age of 16. Uninspiring teaching was one reason pupils gave to inspectors to explain why they did not wish to continue studying science. Another was not seeing the purpose of what they were studying, other than to collect examination grades.

There were common weaknesses in a significant minority of lessons in both the primary and secondary schools visited:

  • activities did not match each pupil’s prior learning, so that some pupils wasted time or did not complete work

  • pupils became disengaged from learning and more able pupils in particular were not given work that was challenging enough

  • teachers failed to provide pupils with feedback that really helped them to improve their work.

In nearly half of the primary schools visited senior leaders were not setting targets for science and were not tracking pupils’ progress in the subject. This was because they no longer saw science as a priority, despite its place as a core subject in the National Curriculum.

A very low proportion of the subject leaders in the survey had received specific professional development in providing leadership for science. However, schools that had provided science-specific professional development were much more likely to be judged as outstanding in their overall effectiveness of science.

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