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Schools must do better in teaching of sciences

There is some good news in Education Scotland's report on how the sciences are taught in schools.

The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has stimulated change in the way science is taught, inspectors say, and teaching is improving. But the most important point of the report is clear: there is room for a great deal of improvement.

It is required in three main areas. The first, and most important, is in the way we record and assess how pupils are performing in the sciences and it is clear that, in some schools, the planning of learning is not strong enough. There is also a lack of proper assessment in many cases so that staff do not know how well a pupil is doing.

What this lack of planning and assessment means is pupils do not have clear targets against which they can be measured. Yet staff need to know how well their pupils are doing so they can identify where any improvements need to be made although, as the teaching unions have pointed out, there are dangers in assessing pupils too much. At present, assessment is happening in some areas such as literacy and numeracy, but possibly to the detriment of measuring progress in science.

The second area that requires improvement is specialisation, specifically when pupils are required to choose the subjects they will take to examination. One of the founding principles of CfE was that this choice should be delayed by one year. Pupils formerly made their choices at the end of second year.

The idea of the reforms was that this decision would be delayed until the end of third year, allowing pupils more time to gain a broader education across subjects.

The evidence of the Education Scotland report is that this ambition is not being met and that, in some schools, pupils are still being forced to choose between subjects at an earlier stage. If they choose to drop science, this can have a negative impact on the breadth of their learning and undermine one of the core aims of CfE. These schools should do all they can to change their procedures to bring them into line.

Finally, there is one other area in which schools need to do better and it is the teaching of science in primaries. At the centre of the new curriculum from the start was the concept of interdisciplinary learning, the idea that a deeper understanding can be achieved by ranging across the curriculum in one lesson. In principle, it is a fine idea but the Education Scotland report suggests it is not serving the sciences well.

The problem is that, in some schools, there is not enough science being included in such interdisciplinary lessons, to the extent that some pupils were often not even aware they had been taught any science. This must be addressed if pupils are to grasp the subject and choose to study it in secondary and beyond. It is in all our interests that they choose to do so. As the Scottish Government points out in its strategy for science, Scotland will need scientists to tackle issues such as renewables and ageing. The pupils who will become those scientists are in our schools right now.

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