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A Summary of Ofsted’s Science Subject Report: Finding the Optimum

Ofsted have released the first of their latest subject reports which use the research reviews as a lens to evaluate the curricula of schools they have inspected. The first report explores and evaluates the state of science education in England. The findings are based on a relatively small sample of schools (50) but nevertheless provide some useful insights and frameworks for considering our own school's science offer. It sets a high standard and expectation for how disciplinary knowledge in particular should be taught with the same precision and rigour as substantive concepts.


I've tried to summarise some of the key points from the report and wanted to share them with other as in the past people have said they've found them useful. As always, these notes are my interpretation of the report but the arguments themselves come from Ofsted's own work. If I have misinterpreted or misrepresented any of the findings, please let me know. You can read the full report by clicking here.


🥜 The Report in a Nutshell

  • Science is a core subject in the National Curriculum.

  • Science education in England is a strength and schools compare favourably in international comparisons although recent comparisons show a relative decline in performance at age 10 and for Y9 pupils (TIMSS).

  • Most schools are offering a curriculum which is at least as ambitious as the National Curriculum.

  • Schools continue to face a recruitment challenge for specialist science teachers.

  • The report uses the Research Review from 2021 as a lens to evaluate school curricula.


🔑 Key Points from the Report

  • Effective curricula focus on development of key concepts over time. They map out the detail of the knowledge - both the substantive and disciplinary - children should learn and the way in which this knowledge is connected.

  • Where pupils do not develop a secure knowledge of science, this can be attributable to schools emphasising coverage or completion of activities over deep learning.

  • Science should be taught regularly (at least once per week) so that pupils have frequent opportunities to revisit and build on their learning and to prevent it from being forgotten.

  • Covid-19 lockdowns caused significant gaps for pupils and challenges for primary-secondary transition.

  • The amount of practical work varies greatly between schools, and particularly between primary and secondary settings; hands-on activities are much more common in primary.

  • Barriers to learning include schools not providing sufficient opportununites for pupils to practise and consolidate what they have learned before moving on to new content. This affects their ability to recall content at a later point.

  • The most common conception of the curriculum is as a description of what pupils need to know and do; however, it'd be even better to see the curriculum as a 'path' - a way of making science learning easier by taking account of what pupils learn in other subjects, helping pupils to avoid misconceptions, and ensuring that links across the curriculum are made explicit when teaching science.

  • Primary schools tend to prioritise pupils carrying out different types of scientific enquiry whereas secondary schools tend to prioritise developing pupils' substantive knowledge.

  • Assuming little prior knowledge from primary schools can lead to unnecessary repetition of content in Year 7.

  • Most schools don't make the knowledge children should learn in Reception as clear and explicit as it is in other year groups which limits how effectively prepared children are for Year 1.

  • Secure subject knowledge by teachers supports the learning of science. Stronger subject knowledge enables teachers to bring wider aspects of science into the lesson which supports pupils to make wider connections between concepts.

  • It is rare for teachers to draw upon evidence-based, subject-specific approaches when teaching science.

  • Subject leaders play a crucial role in developing school science curricula. They should be supported by being provided with dedicated leadership time and subject leadership training.

  • Retrieval practice (assessment as learning) sometimes takes place at the expense of assessment for learning. This means that pupils are being asked to recall knowledge they have not successfully learned.

  • Assessments generally do not check whether learning from previous years has been remembered.

  • Some schools focus less on checking whether pupils have learned the disciplinary knowledge that is needed work scientifically; they tend to focus only on the substantive content.


💎 What makes a science curriculum high-quality?

  • Pupils learn detailed and connected knowledge of the curriculum and remember what they have previously learned.

  • Leaders and teachers are clear about the purpose of any teaching activity or specific content choice.

  • Teacher explanations make the ideas clear to children and link new ideas to prior knowledge.

  • Assessment is used to carefully check what pupils have learned, including disciplinary knowledge.

  • Leaders see the curriculum as a 'path' which makes learning science easier. The curriculum is planned to take account of what has been learned in maths and makes sure that pupils have sufficient time to learn the most important content in ways that they can remember it. The best curricula make these paths 'provisional' so that they can continuously be refined and developed.

  • The curriculum details the progression in disciplinary knowledge with the same level of detail as substantive knowledge.


✨ Recommendations from the Report

  • Ensure the content taught in Reception is detailed as explicitly as it is for KS1 and KS2.

  • Plan the KS3 curriculum to build on what has been learned previously.

  • Build time into the curiculum for pupils to learn and remember key knowledge.

  • Explicitly teach how new content links to pre-existing schema so that pupils build connected knowledge.

  • Identify and sequence the disciplinary knowledge pupils need to work scientifically. This should include the full range of outcomes from the National Curriculum. This also includes some of the concepts which might not be explicitly stated but are inherent within working scientifically e.g independent variable, dependent variable, control variable etc

  • Teacher explanations should use pupils' prior learning so that meaningful connections can be made between new content and knowledge from across the curriculum.

  • Schools should ensure content has been learned before moving on to new content. This includes deliberately checking whether pupils have specific misconceptions.

  • Schools should choose appropriate teaching and learning approaches based on the content being taught.

  • Schools should assess that both substantive and disciplinary knowledge from previous years has been remembered. This includes, where relevant, that pupils can use their knowledge to select, plan and carry out different types of enquiry.

  • Schools should create a systematic and continuous approach to developing staff expertise in science, taking into account the context of the individual school and teaching team.

  • Schools should ensure that sufficient curriculum time is afforded to science.


🤔 Considerations for Leaders


Curriculum

  • The primary curriculum needs to plan out both the substantive concepts and disciplinary concepts that pupils should acquire. This involves understanding science as a tradition of enquiry (working scientifically).

  • The best curricula embed disciplinary knowledge within the most appropriate substantive knowledge.

  • Pupils should learn, over many years, extensive and connected knowledge of substantive concepts. This means that the content should be arranged in a logical order and that enough time be provided for pupils to learn the content properly.

  • Pupils should not be expected to learn too much content in a short time as this increases the chance of cognitive overload which inhibits learning.

  • Pupils need time to practise what has been learned to prevent it from being forgotten.

  • Pupils should develop, over time, their knowledge of substantive concepts. This means growing their schema of key concepts such as force and habitat. For example, in Year 3 pupils will understand 'force' as pushes and pulls, and in Year 5 this will grow to include gravity and friction.

  • Reception and Year 1 curricula should dovetail. The Reception curriculum needs to considered in sufficient detail to ensure that it supports pupils to learn science in Year 1. This includes being precise about the key vocabulary, concepts, and phenomena that they want children to acquire and experience.

  • Schools should ensure cohesion between commercial schemes which do not cover both EYFS and KS1/2.

  • Leaders should clearly identify what pupils need to know and do and then select the best ways to teach these. This includes breaking down high-level National Curriculum outcomes into their component parts.

  • Science learning should not be confounded with an over-focus on aspects of literacy.

  • It is important that the school curriculum does not go too technical too quickly or prematurely. Material from KS3 is unlikely to be suitable for the primary curriculum where pupils have not learned the prerequisite prior knowledge.

  • Pupils need enough time to learn the content. This means going beyond coverage and requires sufficient time being allocated to the subject. It also requires that lesson time be used effectively e.g. not using up too much time collecting data.

  • Leaders should take into account what pupils have learned in other subjects, such as geography, so that schema can be developed. This might mean needing to sequence content in different subjects based on the way the content influences understanding. For example, learning about the water cycle in geography will be different based on whether children have understood the concept of evaporation or not.

  • The focus of the science curriculum should always be the science. Sometimes concerns such as careers or team building are prioritised over developing pupils' scientific knowledge and understanding.

  • Schools might take into account sequencing content across the year to take account of the timing of specific phenomena e.g. learning about seed dispersal when this occurs in the local environment,


Disciplinary Knowledge

  • Disciplinary knowledge can be taught and revisited at the same time as substantive knowledge is taught.

  • Disciplinary knowledge should not be expected to be acquired as a by-product of 'doing' experiments or procedures - it needs to be explicitly taught.

  • The disciplinary knowledge pupils needs to be taught should include important concepts related to working scientifically such as concepts of evidence and measurement.

  • Pupils should be taught how to carry out procedures such as how to draw a line graph.

  • Disciplinary knowledge includes knowledge of:

    • Methods that scientists use to answer questions

    • Apparatus and techniques, including measurement

    • Data analysis

    • How science uses evidence to develop explanations

  • Pupils can learn disciplinary knowledge through a variety of approaches, including teacher explanation.

  • Leaders should identify the component knowledge required by pupils to develop their disciplinary knowledge.

  • Leaders should avoid organising the curriculum around practical activities or scientific enquiries. Instead, leaders should carefully consider what disciplinary knowledge is to be taught and the best way to teach it.

  • Progression in disciplinary knowledge is more effective if it is purposefully planned rather than just linked to substantive content.

  • Leaders should detail how knowledge of disciplinary concepts such as fair testing develops over time. They should be clear about the expectations for increasingly sophisticated understanding.

  • The full range of scientific enquiries should be taught. This includes:

    • observing over time;

    • pattern seeking;

    • identifying, classifying and grouping;

    • comparative and fair testing;

    • and researching using secondary sources.

  • Disciplinary knowledge can be challenging to sequence because it needs to be considered alongside the substantive content. Opportunities also need to be provided for embedding understanding.

  • The best practice of teaching about scientists is when they are closely related to the content pupils are learning about at the time. A range of scientists should be taught about so that pupils do not develop a narrow conception of what a scientist looks like (men in white coats in a laboratory).


Planning to make science easier to learn

  • Curriculum choices affect how easy or difficult it is for pupils to learn science. Knowledge gained at any point affects future learning.

  • The curriculum should consider what needs to be taught and when it needs to be taught so that it can be sequenced to make learning easier. This also requires consideration of what is to be learned in other subjects such as mathematics.

  • Curriculum planning should also take into account the misconceptions pupils are likely to bring to lessons or develop unless they are effectively addressed. Leaders should make these misconceptions explicit so that teachers don't have to rely on their own subject knowledge.

  • Vocabulary enables pupils to talk about the phenomena they are learning about. It is important to identify the core vocabulary pupils need to acquire rather than just identifying long lists of vocabulary.

  • Prior knowledge needed to understand phenomena also needs to be considered so that pupils have sufficient understanding to discuss and explain their observations.

  • Experience of science in the wider world, such as museum visits, can help build background knowledge for pupils. This supports formal classroom learning.

  • The curriculum should be continuously refined and adapted to take into account any issues from teaching. This leads to continuous improvement.


Practical Work

  • Practical work is not always effective. This is often the case when its purpose has not been established or when pupils are expected to do too much at once.

  • Practical work is more effective when it takes place when pupils have enough prior knowledge to learn from an activity.

  • Practical work can be categorised in the following three ways:

    • helping pupils learn substantive knowledge;

    • helping pupils learn disciplinary knowledge;

    • helping pupils learn both substantive and disciplinary knowledge.

  • Practical work should not cover too many aspects at once otherwise it will likely lead to cognitive overload.

  • Well-structured enquiry questions can help focus on a particular aspect of the curriculum. When questions are too complex, this can negatively affect learning.

  • Practical teacher demonstrations play an important role in helping pupils learn science, involve minimal costs and can save time.

  • It should not be assumed that SEND pupils learn best by carrying out practical activities. Practical work can sometimes increase complexity and divert pupils' attention away from the scientific content.

  • In EYFS, practical work is effective when teachers are clear about its purpose, when children have regular opportunities to talk with adults, and when teachers complement children's choices to ensure a full curriculum.

  • Group sizes for practical work should not be too big otherwise the members might not all have a chance to experience the object of their learning.


Pedagogy

  • Clear teacher explanations, which carefully build on what pupils already know, are an important pedagogical feature. They play a key role in helping pupils build connections between what they are learning and their prior knowledge.

  • Models and analogies can be helpful tools but should be used with caution as they can lead to misconceptions.

  • Effective activities include introducing pupils to the phenomena they are learning about and sometimes include real-life examples.

  • Less effective activities are ones which do not focus pupils' thinking on what they are learning, or ones which do not provide sufficient opportunities to practise using the knowledge they have learned.

  • Lessons should enable pupils to repeatedly practise any key vocabulary. Overly technical vocabulary can interfere with learning if important foundational knowledge has not been secured.

  • It is effective practice to anticipate and address content that pupils might find difficult or with which they are likely to make mistakes.

  • Pupils with SEND should be expected to learn the same curriculum as their peers but should be well supported with doing so. Appropriate lesson pace and scaffolding, as well as additional support, are effective ways to meet pupils' additional needs. Practice should not limit what SEND pupils can achieve.

  • Using models, such as building a physical model of human blood, can be effective when pupils have secured the key knowledge they need to understand them.


Assessment

  • Formative assessment in science should continue over extended periods and contexts. It should ensure that learning has been understood as intended and is embedded in pupils' memory. This includes checking content from previous years.

  • Formative assessment in quiz styles can be effective for checking retention of component knowledge but it can be less effective for checking how knowledge is applied.

  • Teachers should assess whether pupils hold specific misconceptions or misunderstandings. This allows teachers to address these misconceptions.

  • Feedback is most effective when it addresses why answers are strong or what needs to happen to improve: it should always refer to the specific curriculum content.

  • Feedback should be provided when pupils complete retrieval practice so that pupils do not have their misconceptions and misunderstandings reinforced.

  • If there is insufficient checking of understanding, pupils might move on to new content before they are ready.

  • Mid-topic assessments allow teachers to identify specific gaps and address issues before pupils reach the end of the topic. (Secondary)

  • Strong subject knowledge enables teachers to use questions and tasks to check that specific content has been learned.

  • Retrieval practice should take forms other than just remembering facts in isolation so that pupils can use their knowledge to make connections.

  • Knowledge should be secured before retrieval practice is used.

  • Using retrieval practice to address misconceptions at the start of a lesson brings challenges. These include reinforcing misconceptions as well as the lack of time and opportunity at the start of a lesson for pupils to receive the feedback they need to address the misconceptions.

  • Summative assessment is an important tool for curriculum evaluation. It should involve assessment of both substantive and disciplinary knowledge.

  • Summative assessment should not be overly used as this can narrow the curriculum and lead to teaching to the test.


CPD

  • Access to science-specific CPD is particularly important for primary teachers; some report a lack of confidence with teaching science.

  • CPD should align with the curriculum and include disciplinary knowledge.

  • CPD should also focus on developing teachers' knowledge of substantive concepts and how to teach them (pedagogical content knowledge).

  • Subject leaders can be a valuable source of informal support for teachers.

  • A common theme from inspections is that leaders are not very clear about how teachers would benefit from science-specific CPD.


Subject Leadership

  • Subject leaders do not always have sufficient time to lead their subject.

  • A lack of support (by SLT) for leadership and time to lead inhibits the impact subject leaders can have.

  • Wider groups - such as MAT or LA leaders' groups - can be valuable forums for sharing expertise.

  • Leadership should focus on improving the quality of education and not just on administration.

  • School timetabling can help support new teachers which might improve retention rates.

  • Recruitment of specialist teachers continues to be a challenge.


Curriculum Impact

  • Some pupils see science as a list of disconnected facts. They do not appreciate the links and relationships that link and organise knowledge.

  • Pupils gain a limited knowledge of science if they cannot remember what they have previously been taught.

  • There is often variability in what pupils do remember. Most pupils only remember what they have recently been taught.

  • It is important for primary and secondary colleagues to communicate over curriculum content so that time isn't wasted in repeating coverage unnecessarily.

  • Pupils should develop a detailed understanding of the disciplinary knowledge that underpins carrying out practical work and enquiries. It is important that pupils remember what they have learned from practical work rather than just the activity.

 



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