National Curriculum Subjects / Research / Science / Teaching & Learning

What’s the point in Primary Science?

This post is inspired by a collection of thoughts and things I’ve read over the past few weeks. Firstly, from looking at science education as part of my Masters degree, coupled with a recurring theme of speeches at the PSQM award evening and finally, the Rochford report into assessing SEN in line with the new curriculum.

So what are the aims of science education? Historically, the purpose of any science curriculum has been in tension and confused with itself. Does it provide an education for all? A foundation of simple, ‘everyday’ science knowledge focusing on how stuff works. Or does it focus on educating the next generation of scientists?, of which there is a detailed and documented need for in the UK. 

So what about primary? There certainly aren’t any career paths aged 11. So why bother at all? Of course, the logical argument is to ensure that we are exposing children to a wide range of science disciplines and opening their eyes to future careers. Whilst also ensuring that children begin to understand the big ideas in science. The new national curriculum has made it statutory for enquiry-based learning through the premise of ‘working scientifically’ as the way to deliver subject knowledge and content. Ironically though, this appears to contrasting to the argument for a basic knowledge for all – providing a foundation of scientific literacy when a career in science isn’t going to happen. 

There is another layer however, something I refer to as a hidden curriculum. In my opinion, the hidden science curriculum includes the beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes that are instilled during teaching and learning. There is clear evidence of the need to engage children before the age of 14, especially girls. So primary and KS3 are essential for developing these values and attitudes towards science, including the understanding of what a scientist is. Are they just old men in white coats? 

Of course, but not surprisingly, there is one word that begins to make sense of it all: accountability! Sadly, in the data driven world of education, SATs and league tables are high-stakes assessments for primary schools. As a consequence, other subjects get pushed aside. How can you test ‘working scientifically’? Whilst it is a blessing that primary science has not succumbed to the soul destroying SATs in Year 6. The message is clear. Science at primary school doesn’t really matter. This is further evidenced in the Rochford Report (published this month) where recommendations for the replacement of P levels were suggested. The replacement? Use the pre-KS interim framework for reading, writing and maths. Science again, appears to be the poor relation. 

This has to stop. Science is a subject that deserves to be a core subject and is vital for both the future prosperity of the UK in terms of science careers but also in educating society to be aware of scientific issues – none more so than the current global warming debate or understanding the consequences of mass extinctions.

Harlen, W. (2010) Principles and big ideas of science education

Osborne, J.F., Dillon, J. (2008) Science Education in Europe: Critical Reflections. A report to the Nuffield Foundation. King’s College London. 

Millar, R. & Osborne, J.F. (eds) (1998) Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future London: King’s College London downloadable from


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