Revealed: What Ofsted thinks about science teaching in schools

Ofsted has produced the first in a series of planned subject-themed reports – starting with science teaching – based on evidence gathered from its routine inspections of schools.

The watchdog says it has identified “common strengths and weaknesses of science” in the schools it has inspected, and has considered the challenges faced in teaching the subject.

The report says that science curricula are improving and developing despite the lingering effects of the Covid disruption to learning.

However, it also raises several concerns based on Ofsted inspections

Here are the key findings from the new Finding the optimum: the science subject report:

Ofsted’s key findings on science teaching

1. Science curricula improving despite the pandemic

Ofsted inspectors found that science curricula are improving and developing despite the challenges of the pandemic.

Its new report says that the science curriculum taught to pupils, including those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), is generally at least as ambitious as the national curriculum. The inspectorate describes this as “a significant strength” of science education in English schools.

Ofsted says one in four schools has “significantly developed their curriculum in recent years”.

In some cases, it found that leaders had drawn on the support and curriculum planning of organizations such as the Association for Science Education.

2. Concern about science knowledge not being secure

The inspectorate says that where science was strong, pupils “had learned detailed and connected knowledge of the curriculum, and remembered what they had learned previously”.

It warns, however, that there was “a significant minority” of schools where pupils were not developing secure knowledge of science.

The report says that in some schools the focus was on covering the content, rather than ensuring that it was learned, or completing practical activities.

3. Some primary pupils had no science teaching for a whole half-term

The report also notes that there was a small minority of primary schools where pupils went for an entire half-term without learning science.

Ofsted’s report says: “This is a concern because science is a core subject of the national curriculum, and pupils benefit from regular opportunities to revisit and build on their knowledge so that it is not forgotten.”

However, inspectors found that science was taught weekly in most primary schools.

4. Concerns about Covid impact on transition, and duplication

Some pupils came out of lockdown with significant gaps in their scientific knowledge and Covid-19 has prevented primary and secondary school colleagues from working together to support pupils’ transition, the watchdog says.

There is also concern raised about how well schools plan the science curriculum to build on what pupils have learned in the previous phase of education.

In some secondary schools, Ofsted says, it was “incorrectly assumed that pupils learned little science in primary school”. Ofsted says this led to some content being unnecessarily repeated in Year 7 and beyond.

Therefore one of its recommendations for secondary schools is to ensure that the science curriculum builds on what pupils learned in primary school. Schools should not simply repeat it “or assume that pupils learned little”.

5. Differences in practical work found between phases

The Ofsted report highlights large differences in the amount of practical work taking place in schools.

It says that pupils in primary schools were much more likely to take part in hands-on practical activities than students in secondary school.

In all schools that Ofsted visited, it says, teachers rarely use demonstrations.

And the inspectorate warns that across primary and secondary schools, “some pupils did not have sufficient opportunities to practice and consolidate what they learned before moving on to new content”.

The inspectorate says that in secondary schools it found that students sometimes lacked opportunities to take part in high-quality practical work.

In contrast, there was a greater emphasis on practical work in primary schools, but Ofsted warns that it was not necessarily work that had a clear purpose in relation to the curriculum.

6. Subject leaders do not have enough dedicated time

Ofsted’s curriculum-focused inspections have placed a new emphasis on the role of subject leads during inspection.

Its new report into science says that in most schools subject leaders played a crucial role in developing school science curricula and supporting teachers to teach them.

However, it warns that not all subject leaders had access to dedicated leadership time and subject leadership training.

The report adds: “This is a concern, given their central role in ensuring good-quality teaching in their subject.”

7. Curriculum sequencing of knowledge

In its recommendations, Ofsted says that schools should ensure that the curriculum identifies and sequences the disciplinary knowledge that pupils need to work scientifically.

It adds: “This should not be limited to learning about scientific techniques, data analysis or fair tests.

“It should include developing their knowledge of all areas of working scientifically, including different types of scientific inquiry, such as pattern-seeking, and concepts such as evidence and accuracy.”

8. Developing trainee teachers’ scientific knowledge

Another of the report’s recommendations is that initial teacher education providers should support trainee teachers to develop their knowledge of “what science is, the methods it uses, and how to teach this”.

The report says that teachers “rarely drew on evidence-based, subject-specific approaches when teaching science”.

Very few schools had a clear plan of how teachers’ knowledge of science, and how to teach it, was developed over time through CPD.

9. Reception teaching doesn’t always prepare pupils for Year 1

Ofsted found that children were generally introduced to a range of interesting phenomena in Reception.

However, it says that “in some primary schools, the knowledge of the natural world that children were expected to learn in Reception was not clear enough”.

It adds: “Often this was when curriculums simply identified general topic areas or activities for children to complete. This limited how effectively children were prepared for learning science in Year 1.”

Summarizing the findings of the new report, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “A good science education can open the door to some of the most interesting and socially valuable pathways in life. So I’m encouraged to see the progress that has been made in science teaching, despite the pressures brought by the pandemic.

“I hope that this review helps subject leaders and teachers to construct a challenging science curriculum with relevant and useful practical work.”

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