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Thoughts on Ofsted's research review of the factors that influence the quality of science education

Updated: May 14, 2021

On 29 April 2021, Ofsted published the latest report in its research review series that identified the factors that influence the quality of science education in schools in England. It is a substantial report and significant portions of it are of greater relevance to secondary schools than primary schools. To help primary schools consider the findings and conclusions of the review, we have selected the most relevant content from it and provided that below with some additional commentary that we hope schools will find useful.

Research review series: science

Before launching into the content of the report, it is worth reminding ourselves that, though the report is new, it is a review of existing research into the factors that influence the quality of science education. This is not new research. It summarises what is already known from existing research, a lot of which will already be familiar to you. What it does usefully do is draw all that research together into a single document which we can refer to when reviewing science in our schools.

It is also worth stating that the report is not a summary of things that Ofsted has found, during inspections, that schools aren't doing. Many of you will already be delivering science teaching that is based on the factors identified in this report that are associated with quality science education. However, Ofsted will use the content of the review when they examine how science is taught in England’s schools and will publish a report on this in due course.

In the following information, we have followed the structure of the Ofsted report, so the headings below are taken directly from the report itself. The content quoted from the report comes from the summary sections at the start of each section of the report.

Curriculum progression: what it means to get better at science

"Expertise in science requires pupils to build at least two forms, or categories, of knowledge. The first is ‘substantive’ knowledge, which is knowledge of the products of science, such as models, laws and theories. The second category is ‘disciplinary knowledge’, which is knowledge of the practices of science. This teaches pupils how scientific knowledge becomes established and gets revised. Importantly, this involves pupils learning about the many different types of scientific enquiry. It should not be reduced to learning a single scientific method."

In recent years, there has been a great deal of emphasis given to schools having knowledge-rich curricula. This report makes it clear that, in science, this does not mean pupils learning more 'substantive' knowledge, or scientific facts. It is about developing them as scientists which highlights that teaching the working scientifically skills, or 'disciplinary' knowledge, is equally important. The 'disciplinary' knowledge helps pupils learn the 'practices of science', in other words, how to work like scientists.

Some of the skills that scientists use when carrying out scientific enquiry are set out in the working scientifically statements in the National Curriculum. They are not always clearly defined and are not designed to be shared with pupils. Breaking them down into specific science skills, such as our 10 Science Skills, helps pupils know what skill they are using and helps teachers to teach each skill explicitly and track their coverage of them.

However, there is more to developing ‘disciplinary' knowledge than pupils simply practicing the working scientifically skills. While they are carrying out their scientific enquiries, they should be recognising that the working scientifically skills help them acquire new knowledge or adapt their thinking. This knowledge needs to be made explicit. It is not just about doing the activity. Time must be given for pupils to reflect on the evidence they gather to answer their scientific enquiry questions and use it to develop their 'substantive' knowledge. It should be highlighted to them that this process is how scientific knowledge is developed, revised and becomes established.

It is important that pupils are taught the 'disciplinary' knowledge across different topics, alongside the 'substantive' knowledge, so that they develop them in specific science contexts across 'each science', in other words biology, chemistry and physics.

The understanding and use of a broader range of scientific enquiry types, beyond fair testing, has moved on a great deal in primary schools, since the introduction of the National Curriculum. There will always be debate around the definitions and types of scientific enquiry that are included in the National Curriculum, but the PLAN primary science resources include a useful definition of each, with examples, of the five that currently feature.

"In high-quality science curriculums, knowledge is carefully sequenced to reveal the interplay between substantive and disciplinary knowledge. This ensures that pupils not only know ‘the science’; they also know the evidence for it and can use this knowledge to work scientifically."

This highlights the role of scientific enquiry in the teaching of science, as pupils will come to appreciate that knowledge is based on evidence from scientific enquiry and that knowledge is also required to carry it out. Pupils need the disciplinary knowledge, in other words the working scientifically skills, to carry out a scientific enquiry, but they may also need substantive knowledge. For example, in Key Stage 1, in order to successfully complete a scientific enquiry to identify the best material to use to mop up a spill, pupils will need an understanding of absorbency. In upper Key Stage 2, pupils will not be able to make a scientific prediction about the descent of a parachute, if they do not have the substantive knowledge about air resistance and gravity.

Organising knowledge within the subject curriculum

"A high-quality science curriculum not only identifies the important concepts and procedures for pupils to learn, it also plans for how pupils will build knowledge of these over time. This starts in the early years. Research shows that high-quality science curriculums are coherent. This means the curriculums are organised so that pupils’ knowledge of concepts develops from component knowledge that is sequenced according to the logical structure of the scientific disciplines. In this way, pupils learn how knowledge connects in science as they ‘see’ its underlying conceptual structure."

Pupils need to be exposed to science concepts logically, so that they build on the necessary prior learning. The National Curriculum has gone a long way to do this for us, but it is important that teachers are clear about this progression. The PLAN Knowledge matrices make this clear for teachers by highlighting the linked concepts from previous year-groups, so that they can bear this in mind when planning. They should also make these starting points clear to pupils so that they can see how they are adding continuously to their knowledge.

There are also connections between the sciences – biology, physics and chemistry – which teachers should also highlight to pupils. For example, in Year 1, seasonal changes have an impact on living things in their habitats. In Year 3, soil has an impact on how plants grow. These connections across the sciences and between topics should be made explicit. This sequencing document identifies the questions that need to be considered by schools when planning the teaching of the topics and statements within any particular year-group and identifies the sequencing issues that need to be addressed.

"Importantly, this sequencing pays careful attention to how to pair substantive with disciplinary knowledge, so that disciplinary knowledge is always learned within the most appropriate substantive contexts."

Teachers need to choose carefully the scientific enquiry activities that support the development of the substantive knowledge that they are covering. They can then choose the most appropriate disciplinary knowledge (working scientifically skills) to introduce based on the scientific enquiry activity chosen and the needs of their pupils. Pupils should then be provided with additional opportunities to develop this disciplinary knowledge (working scientifically skills) further in different 'substantive contexts', in other words in other topics.

There is also a cross-over between the knowledge content in science and other subjects. This needs to be taught consistently, regardless of the subject. For example, whether pupils learn the substantive knowledge about the water cycle in geography or science, the vocabulary used should be the same and pupils should understand that it is the same water cycle being taught in both subjects. Similarly, when teaching the disciplinary knowledge of drawing graphs, the expectations of how to draw an appropriate graph are the same regardless of the subject.

Other curricular considerations

"evidence shows the importance of practice when learning science. Practice makes sure that learned knowledge is accessible and not forgotten."

It often feels as though there is insufficient time in school timetables for science. Wellcome's Understanding the 'state of the nation' report of UK primary science education in 2019 recommends two hours a week is required to cover the National Curriculum content in sufficient depth, but the average is just one hour 24 minutes a week. It is, therefore, vital that teachers make every minute count. The PLAN Knowledge matrices can help by specifying the key learning that must be covered. Focusing on this allows teachers time to provide a range of opportunities for pupils to access the substantive knowledge over a period of time while also giving opportunities for them to practice and develop their disciplinary knowledge.

Within a year-group, it may be appropriate to break some National Curriculum topics into smaller sub-topics taught at different times in the year, providing opportunities for pupils to access prior learned knowledge. For example, materials in Year 1 or 2 could be taught for several weeks each term rather than in one block. Some knowledge is best taught throughout the year, such as seasonal changes, plants and living things in their habitats. This also provides good opportunities for pupils to access their previously learned knowledge.

Where there are connections between topics or subjects, these are further opportunities for pupils to access their previously learned knowledge.

"Pupils also need to learn about the different ways that scientists engage in their work through reading, writing, talking and representing science. "

Pupils learn in a variety of ways and should be encouraged to do so. Using high quality science books as part of reading in English reinforces and broadens science learning. It may also be appropriate to use reading as a way to introduce children to key vocabulary they will meet during their science lessons.

Giving pupils time to talk about their developing science knowledge helps to clarify their thinking and is useful preparation for communicating in writing.

"There is also evidence from research into scientific misconceptions that suggests they can be addressed and pre-empted by changing what is taught and when."

The PLAN Knowledge matrices highlight misconceptions that pupils may have to aid teachers with planning effective strategies to pre-empt and explicitly address them.

Practical work

"Practical work forms an important part of a science education. This is because it introduces pupils to the objects, phenomena and methods of study. However, research identifies that practical activities are often carried out with insufficient attention to their purpose."

Scientific enquiry and practical work must form part of the teaching of science, however, it is vital that teachers are clear about its purpose. Substantive knowledge can, and should, be developed while pupils carry out scientific enquiry, but it is important that this knowledge development is made clear to them.

Scientific enquiry also provides a specific context for pupils to learn and develop their disciplinary knowledge, both their working scientifically skills and their understanding of how evidence is used to inform the development of science knowledge.

"Evidence suggests that high-quality practical work […] takes place only when pupils have enough prior knowledge to learn from the activity."

On first reading this statement, it could be interpreted as meaning that pupils should be taught the substantive knowledge for a topic before they engage in practical work. This could result in a series of dry lessons during which the knowledge is taught that is then followed by scientific enquiry work where the knowledge may get forgotten. However, I believe that it is actually reminding us of the interplay between substantive and disciplinary knowledge.

It is often useful to include a short exploratory activity to teach the scientific concepts and vocabulary that pupils will need to use while they carry out scientific enquiry. In Ofsted's report, this is referred to as 'discovery learning'. For example, it is meaningless for pupils to investigate the variables that affect how a parachute falls, if they have not been introduced to the concepts of gravity and air resistance. A short exploratory activity where pupils drop a parachute is an effective way of introducing these concepts before the pupils embark on the scientific enquiry. Similarly, before carrying out an activity to investigate the conditions in which minibeasts prefer to live, pupils will need to have explored the habitats concerned to name and identify the minibeasts that inhabit it. In these examples, pupils are taught some substantive knowledge, as part of an exploratory activity, which they will then develop further during the scientific enquiry activity.

It is important that scientific enquiry is successful in meeting its intended purpose, in other words, it is developing knowledge. Sometimes, pupils may need to be taught a specific working scientifically skill in order to complete a scientific enquiry activity successfully. For example, if a scientific enquiry activity involves the use of a new piece of measuring equipment, pupils should be shown how to use the equipment (taught some new disciplinary knowledge) before they start on the scientific enquiry activity, otherwise time will be wasted in gathering poor data.

Pedagogy: teaching the curriculum

"Research highlights the importance of teacher explanations in science that build from what pupils already know. These explicitly focus pupils’ attention on the content being learned."

It is the role of the teacher to help pupils make sense of their observations and the evidence they gather during scientific enquiry activities and to highlight how this builds on their prior learning. Teachers may find it useful to prepare clear explanations, in advance, that they either share orally or in written form after the pupils have completed the scientific enquiry activity. These explanations should include the careful introduction of key scientific vocabulary. This will support pupils to include the newly acquired substantive knowledge into their conclusions or predictions in further scientific enquiries.


"Evidence shows that, despite the best curriculum and teaching, pupils will learn different things from what was intended. This means that teachers need to frequently check pupils’ understanding to identify ‘gaps’ and misconceptions. This must be coupled with subject-specific feedback, so pupils know how to make progress in learning the science content."

Teachers need to be clear about the expected learning (PLAN Knowledge matrices – Key learning) and should then build assessment opportunities into all lessons to check on their pupils’ developing substantive and disciplinary knowledge (PLAN matrices – Possible evidence). They can then provide further opportunities to address any identified gaps and misconceptions either with the whole class, smaller groups or individuals. This may be done by feedback marking on written work, verbal feedback during activities, a starter activity in the next lesson or small group teaching.

"A second role of assessment is to prevent pupils from forgetting what they have learned. This is known as the testing effect. Research shows that when pupils retrieve knowledge from memory, over extended periods of time, this increases the likelihood that it will be remembered."

Planning a series of lessons over a period of time to develop the knowledge contained in one National Curriculum statement allows the opportunity for pupils to retrieve the knowledge from their memories over time.

It may be appropriate to include quick, low stakes quizzes as a regular feature throughout topics to provide retrieval time and check that learning is remembered.

"A third role of assessment is to check that pupils have reached specific curricular goals. This is known as summative assessment and must be carefully used to ensure that its high-stakes nature does not lead to curriculum narrowing and/or increase unnecessary burden on staff and pupils."

The PLAN Examples of work can be used to illustrate the breadth of learning expected and support teachers in making accurate summative assessment decisions.

Systems at subject and school level

"A high-quality science education depends on effective subject and school leadership. This starts with allocating sufficient curriculum time to teach the science curriculum. However, research shows this does not always happen, particularly in primary schools."

Wellcome's Understanding the 'state of the nation' report of UK primary science education in 2019 recommends two hours a week is required to cover the National Curriculum content in sufficient depth, but the average is just one hour 24 minutes a week.

"It is also paramount that leaders ensure that science teachers and technicians have access to regular, high-quality subject-specific continuous professional development (CPD). This is especially important in science given that many teachers are teaching outside of their subject specialism."

Book us or another high-quality CPD provider, and have a look at the PLAN CPD packages.

Finally, pupils need access to sufficient resources so that they can carry out practical work, both in the classroom and field. This should be in appropriately sized groups, which better enable first-hand experiences.

Have a look at our Essential Resources for Science spreadsheet that sets out the critical resources required for each topic in each year-group. This will ensure you spend the budget you have on what is essential before investing in other 'nice to have' resources.

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