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So long Primary School Science, and thanks for all the fun

Information about the future comes from the strangest places. Apparently, if you want to know what the future of communications will be, you need to consult producers of adult material. They were the first to exploit videotape, CD-Rom and the Internet. Whatever technology they are working on right now is likely to be the next big thing. Is it Blue-Ray? 3-D? Even 4-D?

A comparison of with educational publishers may seem a little tenuous. But maybe, like them, the publishers know something. It is significant that there was not any new primary science equipment on the stands at the 2010 ASE Annual Conference in Nottingham this January. Actually, there were not even any old ones. After the years when the stands would be full of files and glossy books and discs, there was nothing for primary teachers to lust after, or even browse on. Whatever the educational publishers are working on, it ain’t primary science.

There may be good reasons for this. Many resources are now available online. It’s possible to look up a lesson plan on one of a hundred websites that offer the full Monty – from planning to assessment. Many staff libraries are already groaning with primary science resources – some of them regularly used. Government publications cover a lot of the ground, and don’t have to make a profit like commercial ones. So it’s a tough time for publishers, waiting to see whether the Rose Report will be adopted – or even if there is a change of government which might put Rose-related publishing in the recycling bin. How do you publish for a curriculum that is significantly local, individual and eclectic? Much safer to print for the National Strategies – go for core sales in language and numeracy. So no new primary science publishing – yet. It wasn’t always so. I recall travelling to Wales, twenty years ago, to talk about the publication of a new primary science scheme. I was mobbed – literally. The talk had to be moved from the school (not big enough) to the village hall. A hundred teachers led me down the street.

It goes without saying that since those days, primary school science has been a huge success story. Through the work of enthusiastic teachers both in and out of schools, it has established itself as an essential part of a full primary education. It certainly helped that it was given core status alongside English and mathematics; that it was subject to SATs testing and to reporting, and importantly that both children and teachers hugely enjoyed it.

The key factor in establishing it so soundly in classrooms in the first place was the work of Education Support Grant teachers. ESG teams across the country worked in different ways to show primary teachers how to manage this ‘new subject.’ The ASE history of primary science makes no mention of these foot soldiers. It’s a shameful omission. The great and the good may have fought the political battles to establish science as a core subject, but the real grass-roots changes were the work of ESG teams and the curriculum leaders in schools, who encouraged and supported primary teachers. The work of science coordinators is the life-blood of the subject. The result of their efforts is the UK’s exceptional showing in international comparisons. We do it well.

I’ve worked for forty years in primary education – the last twenty-five largely in primary school science. When I started, my bible was the Nuffield Junior Science Project. A contributor to it was another enthusiastic young teacher called Jim Rose. Forty years later, the subject is in serious trouble, and ironically, his report is not helping. I’m unconvinced by arguments that primary science is about to enter a great new decade of exciting developments. I’d love to agree, but I’m a primary scientist and I work from evidence. I attended a recent regional ASE meeting on science and the new curriculum, excellently planned and executed, with some really helpful practical ideas. Eight teachers attended. Contrast that with my village hall experience.

A great new era in primary school science? Allow me a Victor Meldrew moment. I don’t believe it.

I’m not the only one to think like this. The Cambridge Primary Review remarks that ‘Worryingly, primary science, which was one of the success stories of the National Curriculum’s first decade, has been squeezed by the national strategies, retaining its albeit reduced place only because it was tested at the end of key stage 2. Science is far too important to both a balanced education and the nation’s future to be allowed to decline in this way.’

Rose reflects current primary practice, and this is welcome. We are assured, too, that primary school science will continue to be assessed and monitored. Nobody wants the SATs back in the form in which they could undermine the whole Year 6 experience – and sometimes science teaching throughout the school. But the loss of core status (even second division core), and of external testing, puts primary science back a couple of decades. This is a blow for enthusiasts; but it will come as a relief to teachers who have always found science difficult and those who have little empathy with the subject.

I find no comfort in the response of the opinion-makers – the QCDA, the SLCs, SCORE, NAIGs and the ASE. It’s not that they don’t have the subject’s best interests at heart. But they seem to have spent too long in the company of the converted. Of course the primary school science enthusiasts will ‘make strong and relevant connections between subjects to ensure meaningful and inspiring learning and full coverage of the whole curriculum’ as the ASE’s ‘Science in the proposed new primary curriculum’. But will this kind of optimistic curriculum-speak be reflected in real schools by real teachers who teach other subjects brilliantly but have no burning desire to teach science?

And where are the skills of science? The ASE response says ‘there is no longer a separation of ‘how to do science’ and ‘things to learn about’. Investigative skills are integrated throughout the area of learning. Children will learn by doing.’ (4) Again, sounds wonderful. No argument there, then. And yet there is. The skills of primary education are not the same as the skills of practical science. The whole point about science is that it’s not a skill common to other curriculum areas. Uniquely, science subjects ideas to practical testing. No other curriculum area does that. If science is allowed to slide into the cosy world of overarching skills and soft topics, a whole generation will lose out on its rigor.

So what should the primary science mafia, the school curriculum leaders, the local authority advisers (where they exist) and the college lecturers who have carried the flag so far, be doing? The optimists are planning for stand-alone science lessons. The pessimists are banking on a change of government. It would be nice to think that the Rose Report would be dropped in the dustbin of history. But that’s unlikely. ‘On 30 April 2009, the government accepted the proposals of the Rose review of the primary curriculum. Since this nominally independent review adhered to a narrow government remit, refrained from questioning existing policy and for good measure was managed by DCSF, its adoption was a foregone conclusion’. Oh, and its brief did not include assessment.

So it’s down to the foot soldiers again, folks. If primary school science is not to be sidelined and finally ditched in the future, they need to ensure that its presence is maintained. And I suggest three pragmatic strategies in your school.

First, aim for a high profile. Some subjects are naturally showy. Science is not. Like PE, the best moments in science are practical and often go unrecorded. The products of science are not as engaging as those of the arty subjects. So go for presence. Record on film, on tape, in pictures. Fill display space. Constantly remind teachers that this is a school where good science happens – and that children gain hugely from it.

Next, push for curriculum time. If there are six topics in a year, make two of them science. Argue that the skills and content can’t possibly be covered if they are given a small corner of a topic on pirates or Vikings. Avoid the super-topics, like ‘water’. We’ve been there before, thirty years ago. They sound like they can be full of science, but most offer great opportunities to relegate investigations to the back burner.

Finally, fight for funding. Science resources are essential for this practical subject. Ensure that consumables are replaced and breakages managed. Go for the exciting and spectacular. The science cupboard should not be a place where magnets go to die; it should be filled with engaging and reliable resources that will excite and engage. You can get amazing stuff these days that I could only dream of when I started.

I see everything I have worked for going down the plug. But don’t worry about me. I’ve got plenty to do. Over the past quarter-century, I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in writing the primary science resources used in many of our schools – books, television, discs, websites. Nowadays my commissions come from abroad. In many countries, they are waking up to the idea that their children need a sound grounding in science – just as we are forgetting it. Their children want colour and excitement; their teachers can learn from our experience.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a number of my ex-primary pupils at a school reunion. It was a complete joy, but I especially treasure a comment from one young man, once an enthusiastic ten-year-old, now director of a national professional organisation and an adviser to government. ‘When I was in your class,’ he said, ‘I used to walk to school thinking: Great! Something exciting is going to happen today.’ Just make sure that something exciting happens in your school, too.