Press release

Wellcome Trust responds to Ofsted survey into school science education

Ofsted, the official body for inspecting schools, has today published a report with detailed information about the highs and lows of school science. The Wellcome Trust broadly supports its recommendations and has responded to some of the issues raised in the report.

Practical skills
Ofsted reports how the best schools use practical investigation to teach and inspire students, but says that most schools provide pupils with "limited opportunities to work independently, particularly to develop their individual manipulative skills in practical work" and that many practical skills are "underdeveloped".

Practical enquiry is integral to science and to an excellent science education. This fact is recognised by Ofsted, from the title of its report 'Maintaining Curiosity' to its recommendation that qualifications must include assessment of the skills needed for scientific enquiry.

Ofsted notes that what is assessed heavily dictates what is taught in schools. The current consultation on A-level assessment by Ofqual, the independent regulator of examinations and qualifications, makes the same point.

Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust, said: "It is extremely worrying that Ofqual has proposed that in the future students' A-level science grades will not reflect their practical skills - skills that are an inherent part of science and vital for progression to further study and employment. We fear that if practical skills do not count towards grades, schools and colleges will give students even fewer practical experiences than they have now. We urge Ofqual to reconsider its proposals and ensure that the assessment of practical skills counts towards science A-level grades."

Primary science
The Ofsted report also notes the declining priority of science in primary schools: nearly half of those visited were not setting targets or monitoring pupils’ performance in science.

Dr Leevers commented: "Young people are naturally curious, and scientific curiosity should be nurtured and stimulated from the start of education. Science is a core subject and should be prioritised and taught as such to all students up until the age of 16.

"We fear that many primary school teachers fail to recognise science as a core subject alongside English and mathematics - they certainly do not treat it as one. Initiatives like the Primary Science Quality Mark (PSQM) help to develop and celebrate the quality of science teaching and learning in primary schools; however, this report reminds us that there is much work still to be done."

Teaching quality
Ofsted notes that the best science teaching is driven by skilled leaders who set out to sustain young people's natural curiosity. According to the Wellcome Trust Monitor, an independent nationwide survey, the most commonly selected factor that 14- to 18-year-olds identified as having encouraged them to learn science was "having a good teacher" (58 per cent), and the most commonly selected factor for discouraging them from learning science was "having a bad teacher" (43 per cent).

Dr Leevers said: "We welcome Ofsted’s emphasis on the importance of skilled science teachers and fully support its recommendation that school leaders and governors ensure that subject leaders and teachers have subject-specific continuing professional development. The Wellcome Trust founded the National Science Learning Centre to provide transformative professional development for science teachers and technicians; these courses have proven benefit to participants, and we continue to support Project ENTHUSE, alongside the government and industry partners, to provide bursaries to cover their costs."