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What does Ofsted's report, Finding the optimum, tell us about the primary science curriculum?

"Ensure that the curriculum identifies and sequences the disciplinary knowledge that pupils need to work scientifically. This should not be limited to learning about scientific techniques, data analysis or fair tests. It should include developing their knowledge of all areas of working scientifically, including different types of scientific enquiry, such as pattern seeking, and concepts such as evidence and accuracy.”

The biggest issue, identified by Ofsted, with curriculum design appears to be the teaching of the disciplinary knowledge – the working scientifically skills. Most schools tend to map out the substantive knowledge in their long-term plans, but fewer do the same with the disciplinary knowledge, because the practical work and scientific enquiry activities teachers include in their lessons are intended to be the vehicle for pupils to learn and apply the disciplinary knowledge. Unfortunately, teachers are not always identifying the specific working scientifically skills they are teaching through each piece of practical work or scientific enquiry. Consequently, disciplinary knowledge is not always taught as explicitly as substantive knowledge and therefore pupils may not be aware of what they are learning.

This is not as simple a problem to resolve as it sounds, bearing in mind disciplinary knowledge must always be taught through relevant substantive knowledge. In addition, not every topic in every year-group presents opportunities for teaching and learning all the various aspects of disciplinary knowledge.

Schools have two main ways of addressing this issue. The first is to review their long-term plans, identify the practical work and scientific enquiry activities that they intend to include and audit them for the disciplinary knowledge that they cover. If the audit indicates that they do not provide complete coverage of the disciplinary knowledge across the year, then the plans will need to be adjusted to achieve this. Having ensured that the plans do provide full coverage of the disciplinary knowledge, schools need to make clear to teachers both the substantive and disciplinary knowledge objectives, so they teach both explicitly, and make clear to their pupils the knowledge that they are learning.

The second option is to ensure that teachers understand that the lessons they develop to cover the substantive knowledge, set out in the long-term plan, must include disciplinary knowledge objectives that build across the year to complete coverage. They need to choose the practical work or scientific enquiry activities that they include in their lessons for each topic to build their pupils’ disciplinary knowledge over time. Then, they need to identify the specific disciplinary knowledge that they are teaching through each piece of practical work or scientific enquiry and make that explicit to their pupils. About half way through the academic year, the subject leader can ask teachers to audit the working scientifically skills that they have covered so far in their lessons and develop their planning for the rest of the year to ensure any gaps are covered, and the subject leader can then monitor against this. The PLAN Working Scientifically: Planning Coverage CPD is a resource that can support subject leaders with an audit of this sort.

“Support subject leaders to prioritise curriculum time for teaching key scientific knowledge. In some schools, the focus is on making sure that pupils learn and remember what has been taught, so that they develop increasingly sophisticated and connected scientific knowledge. However, too many subject leaders and teachers feel pressured to cover content and move on.”

If the allocation of time for science in the school’s timetable is below the two hours a week generally considered to be the minimum required to adequately cover the content specified in the National Curriculum, then there is the risk that pupils will be taught the content, but there won’t be time to consolidate their learning and they will not be able to recall it and use it in future learning.

The pressures on school timetables are significant, so it will not be easy for schools to find extra time for science. However, one obvious way of maximising the time available is to ensure that schools are not teaching beyond the content of the National Curriculum so, whatever time is allocated, is focused on teaching and consolidating the foundational knowledge included in it.

The report records that, “There were a small minority of primary schools where pupils went for entire half-terms without learning science. This is a concern because science is a core subject of the national curriculum, and pupils benefit from regular opportunities to revisit and build on their knowledge so that it is not forgotten.” For pupils to have sufficient time to build their knowledge and consolidate it, as Ofsted recommends, it is going to be hard for schools to persuade Ofsted that this can be achieved by a curriculum that doesn’t teach science each week throughout the academic year.

“Ensure that the curriculum is specific about the knowledge that children in Reception should learn about understanding the world. This knowledge should connect with what pupils go on to learn in Year 1 science.”

The PLAN EYFS Matrices indicate the science learning that pupils require to be ready to access the National Curriculum in Year 1 and identify where it can be covered in the topic areas commonly used in Reception. They also provide an indication of the vocabulary that pupils could be introduced to, as well as ideas for activities that adults can provide that create opportunities for the vocabulary to be introduced, the phenomena experienced and discussed, and the foundational working scientifically skills developed.

Our next blog will focus on the teaching of science.


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