Ofsted has just brought out a report into science. You should read it. Even if you don’t like inspectors you should read it. Even if you don’t read any other reports you should read this one.
Every three years Ofsted reports on the state of teaching and learning in Science in primary and secondary schools in England. It’s based on dozens of subject specific inspections (over a thousand lesson observations)and therefore works from an impressive evidence base. Imagine lots of instances of inspectors sitting in science lessons and working out whether it’s good, if so why and if not then why not. And then comparing notes and writing about it. The publication is timely with the new Programmes of Study being out.
So what does it say? Well some of the findings are not surprising but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth referring to. Having the evidence to support an assertion elevates it from something we suspect of being so. We are scientists after all.
Progression to the study of science post 16 is clearly seen as a priority. Inspectors had formed the clear view that “getting the grade is not the same as ‘getting’ the science” and that a significant number of KS4 students, given that they had to study science, were keen to get a good grade. Once faced with open choices at 16 many were voting with their feet and taking up other options. We need to find out why and address it (oh, and just telling them that they should do science doesn’t work).
Feedback to students on how to improve is key. A critical question for any teacher is “If I was a student in your class and wanted to do better how would I know what to do?” A question of what to mark is explored (little is gained by marking loads of notes that don’t reveal students’ understanding but occasional extended pieces can be much more insightful) and there’s explicit recognition in the report that peer assessment can play a powerful role but also that students need training in it. An example cited was one in which “students tended to praise the quality of the presentation rather than the depth of understanding of scientific concepts”. Been there, done that.
“Teachers who coupled good literacy teaching with interesting and imaginative science contexts helped pupils make good progress in both subjects.” I.e. don’t ‘teach the science and then try and get students to write about it’ (and don’t argue that progress in literacy isn’t everyone’s job).
The other one I’ll pick out is having sufficient time for enquiry based learning. Now, we know this. Squeeze the time allocation and the first victim is usually practical work. It’s the questions and how they’re explored that make science science, not the answers. This report provides ammunition for the argument to be put to senior leaders.
Now, it can be argued that Ofsted is being a bit disingenuous in calling for these things when everyone knows that the first thing inspectors look for is data showing progress and outcomes. If schools are chasing exam grades then whose fault is it? That’s to miss the point of the report though – I think that the key message is that a short sighted scrabble for exam grades actually doesn’t work very well. If we want students on board, engaging well, making good progress and getting good grades then factors such as feedback, literacy and building engagement are essential.
As I said, read the report.
Ed Walsh is Science adviser for Cornwall Learning. In the past, he has worked extensively with teachers, schools, local authorities and national agencies in relation to science education
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