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What drives better science education in schools?

8 May, 2013
Children in a secondary school science class.

Children in a secondary school science class.

“The best education is provided in schools and colleges that have an outstanding ethos, manifested by strong leadership and governance at both an organisational and subject level.”

So stated the report of the 2010 Science and Learning Expert Group, authored by Sir Mark Walport, then Director of the Wellcome Trust, and convened by the government as part of their Science and Society programme. But how can “outstanding” be achieved? And what currently stands in the way of schools that aren’t meeting such standards?

With these questions in mind, the Wellcome Trust’s Education and Learning team embarked on a programme of work to look more deeply at the accountability system within which schools operate and better understand the perverse incentives that drive it, especially considering how the quality of science education can be affected. This work has helped inform the  Trust’s full response to the government’s consultation on secondary school accountability which closed last week.

English schools operate in an environment where the accountability stakes are high; they are not the only jurisdiction where this is the case, but the weight of accountability (especially through external testing and Ofsted inspections) seems to bear particularly heavily here. Consequences for the quality of science education, such as distortion of teaching and narrowing of the curriculum, can be considerable.

Our latest issue of Perspectives on Education looks at “Effects from accountabilities” and suggests that a system which is less reliant on a narrow set of examination performance measures could improve the quality of science education. The authors are: Andreas Schleicher of the OECD; former Chief Inspector of Schools Mike Tomlinson; headteacher Joan Sjovoll (Framwellgate School Durham); and Chris Williamson and Jo Field, governors of Howard of Effingham Secondary School. Among the points covered, the experts involved found that:

  • Headteachers will always be strongly influenced by performance indicators (league tables and Ofsted inspections– to name the main drivers), but there should be a more nuanced range. Governors and parents need direct access to a wider range of information so they can monitor performance and discriminate between schools. As Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” A broader range of indicators could, for example, help assess qualities such as inspired teaching, pupils’ self-confidence and employability, and the professional development of staff. There should be high expectations for examination success, but also consideration of the ways in which education enriches learning and develops students’ independence, spirit of enquiry and practical skills. Science education should include science clubs, links with industry and universities and high quality careers advice. Some measures may not be as robust or objective as others, but they should be able to guide school leadership and highlight year-on-year change or differences between groups of pupils.
  • Governing bodies need to be more assertive in working with the senior leadership to set the strategic direction for the school and then hold them to account for its delivery. As a leading supporter of open data, the Trust is particularly interested in the way that appropriate levels of information and data can help governors in their work We have been working with the National Governors’ Association and the Fischer Family Trust to develop a new ‘School Performance Governor Dashboard’ aimed at all schools in England. Using this, governors will have access to the high level information they need to hold schools to account and analyse how their results and pupil progress compare to other schools. The Dashboard will be released later in May at www.fft.org.uk)
  • To see a step change in the overall quality of science education the weight of the accountability measures would need to be reduced and the examination requirements overhauled. Ofsted should rely less on performance data and more on overall observation of what they find. Excellent practical work, science teaching, and opportunities for wider learning  are harder to measure than test results, but inspectors quickly recognise them when they see them. The performance of different groups of students should be monitored to ensure that they have equal opportunities in science. Changes such as these would give teachers the space and confidence to innovate and develop pedagogy and thus improve science education in their schools.

The authors of Perspectiveshave pointed the way towards an accountability system that could deliver a vision for all pupils – “a range of valuable skills could be developed in a freer curriculum that is evaluated through sophisticated assessment of the range of skills and knowledge acquired.” Through the current reform of the National Curriculum we have an opportunity to identify what is right as a curriculum entitlement for today and tomorrow, but ensuring that we also have a reformed accountability system that encourages development and not just measurement is the key.

For more on this subject read the latest issue of Perspectives on Education – available to download free.

Hannah Baker, Education, Wellcome Trust

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