Early science and mathematics education: getting the basics right

Nick von Behr is the Education Policy Manager for the Royal Society.

The state of primary and early secondary science and maths education

We have a misleading picture of the health of teaching and learning of science and mathematics in schools. That is the conclusion of today’s Royal Society report on the state of primary and early secondary science and mathematics education in the UK.

While attainment trends generally indicate improvement over the past decade or so, research shows that teachers often lack the knowledge and skills required to teach science and mathematics well. Only 5% of primary teachers have a significant science or maths background. This problem, which is compounded by reliance on ‘teaching to the test’, may well be responsible for so many children being ‘switched off’ these subjects.

The third ‘state of the nation’ report highlights and addresses key concerns over the quality of the current system. It offers possible ways forward to ensure that this vital phase of education continues to nurture the scientists and engineers of tomorrow, as well as producing a scientifically and mathematically literate citizenship. This was highlighted in the Society’s earlier report, The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity.

Science ‘specialist’ teachers and their professional development

The Society advocates that every primary school in the UK has access to a science ‘specialist’ teacher. Achieving this would require building on the previous Government’s policy, to which funds have already been committed, ensuring that there are 13,000 primary mathematics ‘specialists’ in England by 2019. Depending on how a ‘specialist’ is defined – a matter  we urge clarification on – this could require a tripling of existing primary science ‘specialists’.

Similarly, the report emphasises the importance of teachers attending courses as part of their subject-specific continuing professional development (CPD) and urges the Department for Education and the Wellcome Trust to continue their vital support for The Network of Science Learning Centres and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics both established for this purpose. The Society also argues for a broader provision of science CPD courses for non-specialists in both late primary and early secondary teaching, through collaborations between the centres, the professional and learned bodies, and subject associations

Assessment and testing

While the report doesn’t look at the primary curriculum in detail, it does focus on the assessment of attainment in science and mathematics and draws a number of conclusions from both data and qualitative evidence.

Perhaps foremost is the pervasive influence of ‘teaching to the test’ which the Society highlighted a number of years ago in a report on 14-19 science assessment and which ACME and SCORE have both been engaging with. A UK-wide move away from end-of-key-stage tests towards teacher assessment has already taken place, but high-stakes national testing of mathematics and English for 11 year olds still remains in England. We await details of the UK Coalition Government’s promised review.

The use of research evidence

Our work has shown us that  policy-making needs to be properly evidence based, so the UK education authorities’ data collections need to be more consistent, more reliable and more comprehensive than is currently the case.

Concerted efforts need to be made to fill in the gaps and improve the quality of the collections and to support a rigorous approach to researching children’s learning of and engagement with science and mathematics from an early age. The Economic and Social Research Council and other education research funders are identified as leaders in this area, and the Society too is engaging through its Education Research Fellowships.

Only with a scientific approach can we be sure that the UK as a whole will continue to have the best available science and mathematics education it can possibly afford, despite these tough economic times we all live in.

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One Comment

  1. M. Woods
    Posted 12/07/2010 at 13:25 | Permalink

    Well rounded education costs nothing. Teachers should be trained and have the facilities to ensure a good standard of basic education in maths and science, however parental guidance (books chosen, subjects talked about with children, parents trained to help their children think both creatively and logically ), media influences (via lively, interesting documentaries and ‘fun’ tv programmes based around these subjects, access to the vast amount of information on the web) means that all of our children have in theory have a good chance of being successful in these subject areas. Whether adults widen the educational experience of children in these ways and many others is a choice worth thinking about even if it does cost us not money but our time.

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