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Primary priority: how supporting teachers makes science exciting

13 May, 2015

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How old were you when you got interested in science? Wellcome Trust primary science lead, Louise Stubberfield, dreams of a world where children are excited about science and discovery from a young age. She tells us how the Trust is taking action to make that world a reality.

We know that children start to develop perceptions about science toward the end of primary school (Aspires survey from Kings College London). We also know that they carry these perceptions with them throughout their school career, affecting their performance and later interest. So, excellent and engaging primary science teaching is an essential step on the path to a lifelong interest in science, making a difference not only to individual futures, but for all of us through breakthroughs in research or innovation in engineering.

Last year, we launched a report of primary science teaching in the UK – Primary Science: is it missing out? The answer is ‘yes’, for the most part, it is. Many primary teachers lack confidence to teach science well, and primary science leaders often have little experience of science beyond their own GCSE lessons – they manage science in schools rather than leading it. The report made recommendations about ensuring appropriate scientific expertise in schools, and highlighted the importance of a system that values science beyond exams and attainment outcomes.

15276285611_a2c3bd7a3b_kThe good news is that this is a very achievable goal. Working with the National Science Learning Centre, we have developed an intensive programme of continuing professional development (CPD) to give qualified teachers new and improved skills for teaching and leading science in their primary schools. We also commissioned a randomised control trial to evaluate it, with the data showing how pupils’ attitudes and achievement improved when taught by teachers with increased expertise.

“I’m more confident to help colleagues in school, answer their questions, whereas before I wouldn’t have been able to answer their questions, and now I can have a clear grip on what’s going on in school, talk about misconceptions, and as a result our school has moved forwards immensely in science.” (Trial participant)

Conducting a randomised control trial over two years is very hard to do, with so many different factors at play in the various school environments. However, it was clear that just raising the profile of science in a school, by taking part in the trial, might prove to be very beneficial. Similarly, having school leaders that signed up to the commitment and made sure that participating teachers could do what they needed to do to improve their school’s science, made a positive difference too.

FP0000142F02 Child, at secondary school Credit: Fiona Pragoff /. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://images.wellcome.ac.uk Child, at secondary school looking through a magnifying glass. Photograph Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK, see http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/indexplus/page/Prices.html

The trial has also enabled the National Science Learning Centre to evaluate and refine the CPD course, which has now been taken by over 160 teachers. One teacher on the refined course commented that ‘achievement has increased and science has become a focal point of celebration throughout the school. We have been used as a model of good practice for teaching students [student teachers] specialising in science.’ We couldn’t ask for a more promising outcome.

We can continue to make recommendations about improving primary science or, we can make sure it happens. At a workshop we held recently here at the Wellcome Trust, representatives from across the science education sector agreed to do just that, starting with  getting the message out to all education leaders that primary science matters; that aspiring primary science leaders should be able to access the CPD they need, and that it should be a priority. When primary science is valued, children’s perceptions of the subject can be changed, even if they have struggled or thought ‘science is not for me’. No longer something dull or difficult, science becomes exciting, and that is exciting for us!

Primary Science is a key priority for the Wellcome Trust. Find out more about our primary science projects and check out an example of how one primary school is transforming science lessons with a dedicated lab and scientist-in-residence.

Image credits: (from top to bottom) woodleywonderworks via Flickr, CC-BY; Laurie Sullivan via Flickr, CC-BY; Wellcome Images

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