Science report published

Teachers in primary schools need more support to inspire the next generation of scientists, says the CBI

The CBI has identified the obstacles that it feels primary schools and teachers have to overcome if they are to inspire future generations of scientists and engineers. The business organisation has published new research showing that the majority of primary teachers believe science has become less of a curriculum priority, with over a third of schools now providing less than the recommended two hours of science education a week.

In ‘Tomorrow’s World’, a new report co-authored by Brunel University London, the CBI reveals: 

• 53 percent of the 260 primary school teachers surveyed believe teaching science has become less of a priority over the past five years (32.5 percent say it has not changed, 14.5 percent say it is now more of a priority)

• a third of teachers (33 percent lack confidence when teaching science (13 percent felt very confident, 54 percent were confident)

• 62 percent want more professional development to build their confidence while 39 percent called for a science subject specialist within their primary school 

Over a third (36 percent) of schools teaching science at key stage two in the survey do not provide the minimum recommended two hours of science education each week. Only 20 percent are able to commit over three hours, while 7.5 percent of primary schools teach under one hour each week.

John Cridland, CBI director-general, said: “Science education in primary schools is being squeezed out, with over half of teachers believing it has become less of a priority with too many schools struggling to teach the recommended two hours every week. How can we expect to inspire future generations of scientists and engineers if we don’t deliver high-quality and inspiring science lessons at primary-school age? If we are not careful, too many children will have lost interest in science before they hit their teens.

“A lack of science, technology, engineering and maths skills is already holding back economic growth and this will only get worse if we don’t energise the next generation. Pupils need innovative, fun lessons with access to the latest science kit and need to break free of the classroom more to visit cutting-edge companies and universities.

“We must also seriously tackle the persistent cultural problem of pigeon-holing boys and girls into certain subjects and career paths. Schools can have a big impact here, influencing not just pupils but also parents.

“The idea that the education system is successfully inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers is fantasy.”

The CBI argues that the situation has been mainly driven by the abolition of testing at key stage two and the upshot of a system obsessed with exam results, not the real-world skills future scientists, technicians and engineers need to master. Importantly, testing has been maintained for English and maths, and although the CBI does not want a return to SATs for science, it says that schools must ensure that science teaching is highly valued.

The report also finds that over 70 percent of primary school teachers want more support from business. Of those, three quarters would find it helpful for businesses to offer use of their equipment and facilities. Over 60 percent would like support from companies in lesson delivery and arranged class visits.

‘Tomorrow’s World’ outlines a series of recommendations to overcome the challenges of boosting science in primary schools: 

• The UK and devolved governments must set targets to have the best performing schools for science in Europe – and in the top five worldwide – by 2020. This should be underpinned by a new science education strategy – covering primary, secondary and tertiary education

• Primary schools should ensure professional development for science is of a high standard and carried out regularly to build the confidence of primary teachers to deliver high-quality science lessons

• Teachers should be encouraged to spend more time with businesses and universities to enhance their understanding of scientific theory and its practical applications

• All primary schools should have a subject leader for science in place to drive forward the subject as a priority in each school

• Businesses and universities must divert more of their outreach resources to primary schools and not focus purely on secondary. The new Careers and Enterprise Company in England should include primary in its remit and should be funded for the term of the next Parliament. 

Professor Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor and president of Brunel University London, says: “We are pleased to produce this important report with the CBI. The report’s findings – indicating that STEM subjects have become less of a priority in primary schools in recent years – should be a wake-up call for everyone in government, business and education. None of us should be in any doubt of the critical importance of ensuring that the education system inspires interest and enthusiasm for the sciences and provides careers advice and guidance as early as possible for school students. Not only does the nation’s prosperity depend on this, it is also vital to ensure that educational and careers opportunities are not prematurely closed off for young people.

“The work we are doing at Brunel University London to address the shortage of highly qualified STEM teachers, develop innovative approaches for the teaching of mathematics and launch the national STEM Outreach Centre for school students, demonstrates our commitment to playing an active part in promoting the teaching of STEM in primary schools. We are clear that it is our responsibility to work with schools in advancing this agenda and that business has a vital role to play as well. The scale of the challenge requires that we must all work together.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, adds: “An understanding of science is needed to understand and thrive in the modern world. As the CBI’s report makes clear, this learning is best begun early. Yet primary schools are constrained – by narrow accountability targets and the need for their teachers to be masters of all trades, teaching science with the same confidence they teach English, maths, history and sport. We should, as the report recommends, offer maximum support to primary schools and make sure we judge them fairly on a broad and balanced curriculum.”

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