The thought of teaching science polarises many primary teachers.

There are those whose eyes light up as they think of which inspiring, practical lesson will make the most mess, then there are those who are filled with dread and hope they can find a YouTube video that will adequately cover what their class needs to know.

I’m one of the ‘eyes light up’ teachers, but I’ve spent my 11-year teaching career working to inspire and support my ‘filled with dread’ colleagues so that practical science becomes a regular part of their practice.

Avoiding mess

When I became science coordinator, I quickly identified the teachers in my school who didn’t enjoy teaching practical science and set out trying to convince them of its merits.

One such teacher, I’ll call her Sue, was a very experienced practitioner but admitted to me that science scared her so much, due to her own school experiences, that in a 40-year career she’d barely taught it.

Instead she covered the water cycle through art and senses through acrostic poetry. She delivered other science topics via video clips and worksheets.

To build her confidence we team-taught science for a term. To my delight, by the end she was enjoying it so much that she was looking for ways to bring science into every area of the curriculum.

Just before she retired she emailed me and said she wished she’d been introduced to the benefits of practical science many years ago.

I hear similar stories from others involved in primary science education across the UK. When I speak to these colleagues, the same reasons are cited for shying away from practical science:

Excuse 1: “I’m scared about getting something wrong”

Unfortunately, with a heavy focus on literacy and numeracy, many schools don’t see the benefits of practical science so don’t invest in high-quality CPD. However, there is plenty of free CPD out there.

Reach Out CPD (reachoutcpd.com) has excellent curricular-linked modules, or try Facebook groups ‘Unleash 1’ (KS1) and ‘Unleash 2’ (KS2) – both are full of supportive practitioners.

Excuse 2: “Setting up and clearing away takes too long”

There’s no question that organising practical science activities takes time, but in my opinion it’s time well spent when you see the level of engagement of pupils.

Organise your science resources into topic boxes so you can easily find what you need. Train senior pupils as lab technicians to help cut down on preparation and clean-up time. These children can also assist you in delivering practical sessions to younger pupils.

Excuse 3: “I don’t have the correct resources”

With the tightening of budgets across the UK, and the focus on assessed subjects, science is often under-resourced.

However, most primary science can be delivered without specialist equipment. Ask your local high school or college if they have equipment you can borrow if you need it.

Excuse 4: “What if the pupils ask a question I can’t answer?”

Brilliant! That means they’re thinking about the science and formulating ideas based on what they’ve learnt. Science is all about asking questions, not about knowing the answers.

The exciting part is finding a solution. As a teacher it’s OK – in fact, I’d say it’s essential – to be confident enough to say, ‘I don’t know’.

Asking questions

One of the fundamental science skills pupils need to develop at primary level is the ability to ask scientific questions as a starting point for investigations.

Dr Lynne Bianchi, director of the Science and Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub, promotes a ‘WWW’ message – from wow to wonder to working scientifically.

In essence, using a ‘wow’ moment will spark pupils’ curiosity and get them asking questions that lead to investigations.

Lynne’s work on the Great Science Share for Schools places a spotlight on this. Launched in 2016, the campaign aims to inspire young people to share their scientific questions and investigations with new audiences. In 2018, over 40,000 pupils were involved.

Having this special day in your school diary will enable you to raise the profile and focus of science and the children will be utterly engaged and inspired to think and work as scientists when it is their own questions being discussed.

Challenge the status quo

Learning science in primary school can impact on the life chances and choices of young people forever. The importance of developing a scientifically literate generation of young people, in our increasingly technological world, is higher than ever before.

More immediately, the impact it can have on pupils’ engagement, behaviour and wellbeing in school are often unrecognised benefits that stretch way beyond the science classroom.

It’s our job, as teachers and senior leaders, to stand together and challenge the current status quo. It’s always possible to find excuses to not teach practical science, but we must ask ourselves what the consequences will be if we don’t.

If you want to join the collective mission to improve the science experience children have in schools, you’re not alone. Join one of the many organisations providing outstanding support for primary teachers to deliver this most vital of subjects.


Take your science to the next level

  • Become a member of Association for Science Education (ase.org.uk) – this organisation has a very vibrant primary membership and produces a comprehensive selection of resources and CPD opportunities, many of which are free. The primary section of the annual conference is packed with excellent practitioners sharing their experiences.
  • Follow the Primary Science Teaching Trust (pstt.org.uk) – PSTT presents awards to teachers delivering outstanding science and produces a wide range of excellent resources. Its new WOW Science website (wowscience.co.uk) has science links across the curriculum. The 2019 international conference (primaryscienceconference.org) is unmissable for anyone interested in primary science.
  • Register for the Primary Science Quality Mark (psqm.org.uk) – this is an award scheme with three levels and a stated aim of developing and celebrating the profile of science teaching, learning and leadership. The PSQM process encourages schools to reflect on their current practice and guides them through a year-long process of improvement.
  • Take part in the Great Science Share for Schools (greatscienceshare.org) – join in with this national campaign run by the Science and Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub at Manchester University. It involves groups of pupils coming together to share their science learning. The next date is 18th June 2019.
  • Find out more from STEM Learning (stem.org.uk) – this national organisation offers a world-class CPD programme for primary teachers and hosts a comprehensive library of peer-assessed resources.

Paul Tyler is science coordinator at Mearns Primary in Glasgow, a member of ASE and a PSTT fellow. He writes a free monthly science newsletter. Find him at topicalscienceupdates.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter at @glazgow.