Primary School Science in the UK
Science is supposed to be a core subject in UK primary schools, but is it really? We’ll look at what the science curriculum, what school teachers and pupils think, and their options for getting more science into the classroom.
Children are naturally curious and eager to understand the world around them. That’s why science remains an essential subject in primary schools along with maths and English.
But, with regular science assessment and mandatory dedicated lessons kept aside until high school, it’s difficult to tell how well younger students are getting on in STEM education.
The Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation which has conducted extensive research into primary science teaching, suggests students should get at least two hours of science a week. Considering the impact of remote learning, close do we get?
What the curriculum says
The best place to start is by checking what schools legally have to teach. The most recent revamp of the national curriculum embedded more science education in KS1 and KS2. It represented one of the biggest changes to primary science education since being dropped from the Sats in 2009.
The framework details an exact list of topics each year group must focus on, and gives advice on how it fits in with the wider curriculum. For example, the curriculum emphasises science’s role in spoken language development, which is an aim across all other subjects too.
It isn’t without it’s issues though and in England and Wales there’s a notable exception in the guidance- the exact amount of science you have to teach.
A large portion of the KS1 curriculum is given as non-statutory guidance. This means schools won’t incur any penalties for missing it out, allowing for massive variety in science teaching. The flexibility means one school could dedicate several hours a week to KS1 science, another could wrap it up in other lessons plans, and both would be well and truly within the rules.
So despite the exciting prospect the curriculum offers, science can still easily be pushed to the wayside.
What’s happening in primary schools?
Given the breadth of wiggle-room in the curriculum, there’s a broad difference in how much attention science teaching gets.
A 2017 Wellcome Trust survey showed the state of primary school science education in the UK. They surveyed 1010 teachers, 1906 pupils and 902 school science leaders to provide a detailed analysis of STEM teaching in early years education.
Promisingly, 91% of schools had someone in a science leadership role with a majority of them receive continuous external STEM training. Though the report’s findings were mixed- while the resources and people were there, the enthusiasm for STEM wasn’t.
Just 30% of senior leadership team members viewed science teaching as a priority- that’s compared to 83% and 84% for English and maths respectively. A small but significant number of schools (12%) didn’t have a single dedicated, weekly science lesson for any age group.
Primary school science in the pandemic
The challenge of remote learning was met brilliantly by all teachers in the past 18 months. As we return to normal though, gaps in primary school science education during the pandemic might start to show.
Research into the impact of lockdown on primary school science has shown that the subject has been relegated. Members of a focus group said they were concerned about the over prioritisation of maths, English and phonics.
They also said they were frustrated that government recommended resources for remote learning didn’t view science as a core topic.
Coupled with well known challenges disadvantaged children faced during the pandemic, it’s clear how much science was potentially missed out.
Why it needs fixing
Today there are inequalities in STEM that need fixing. Women in engineering, for example, only represent 12% of the industry despite getting higher science grades. Early intervention is essential to prove that science is for everyone.
Not only is there the socially responsible side, but children genuinely enjoy science! The Wellcome Trust survey also found that a huge number of pupils, 93%, said they liked to understand how things work, with a third of them saying they’d like to have a job in STEM when they grow up.
Since a third of the country aren’t trained scientists, engineers and doctors today, more needs to be done to maintain their enthusiasm. We’ve always found at our STEM workshops that science teaching caters to students inquisitive side and really does make them excited.
This is where we come in. STEAMWORKS’ main aim is to inspire the next generation of STEM specialists, and we know it’s essential to include design and creativity with science to allow children to innovate and create amazing things (STEM + Art= STEAM).
Our work with KS1 and KS2 students provides opportunities for schools and communities to get their kids to embrace their creative side, whilst learning about STEM topics they might not get the chance to learn about at home or in the classroom.
Primary school timetables are stretched to their limits because of the game of catch-up we have to play post-pandemic. Our workshops offer a safe-space for students to rediscover their love for science as they finally return to normal schooling.
These include after-school FabLabs, workshop days, teacher CPD and Young Science Ambassadors. We also provide expert advice and consultancy on STEM and STEAM outreach and education, helpful to the teachers needing an extra hand to plan science lessons.