As the final sentence in a chapter on Professional Development and Learning in the newly published ASE Guide to Primary Science Education (Serret and Earle, 2018), my fellow author Bryony Turford and I assert that, ‘Development and learning in science is an entitlement for all primary teachers, and should be part of all teachers’ professional lives and all schools’ strategic plans.’
We argue that primary teaching is a complex and challenging job, with qualification only a first step in a career long journey of learning and reflection. Primary education takes place in a context of fast and constant change, where teachers have to respond to a rapid flow of policy, curricular, assessment and organisational initiatives. And of course teaching science is just one part of a primary teacher’s complex role. It is also a subject in which most primary teachers do not have a degree or A Level qualification (Royal Society 2010), so confidence is often low. Therefore the need for and value of professional development which raises primary teachers’ capacity and enthusiasm for teaching science, and thereby pupil outcomes, is very clear.
Good-quality continuing professional development is considered key to improving primary teacher confidence; teachers who have carried out any professional development in science appear more confident in nearly all aspects of science teaching. (Murphy et al, 2005)
Professional development should play a key part in a school’s development strategy. A shared understanding of the importance and characteristics of effective professional development is currently being widely and clearly articulated (DfE 2016), enabling senior leaders to make good decisions about the type of CPD that will meet individual and school needs. However research shows that science is rarely highly prioritised in primary school improvement planning or linked to other curriculum development areas (Wellcome Trust, 2013). Only just over half of subject leaders have undertaken external science specific CPD lasting one day or more in the last year to help them lead or develop science throughout their school, yet the majority of professional support in science offered to other teachers is from the subject leader (Wellcome Trust, 2017).
The barriers to CPD are well understood: Lack of profile as a result of accountability priorities (only one-third of teachers (30%) think science is ‘very important’ in their schools compared with 83% for English and 84% for maths (Wellcome Trust, 2017)) resulting in low budget and time allocation.
And this is a real shame, because the opportunities for high quality professional learning and development in science for primary teachers have never been better. In the last few years the importance of primary science has been extensively acknowledged by the science education community and there has been considerable investment made to ensure that high quality, subsidised professional development and learning can be accessed either face to face (in or out of school) or online. Across the UK, the STEM Learning network, the ASE, the Primary Science Teaching Trust, Wellcome, Primary Science Quality Mark, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Ogden Trust, SSERC plus other leading national organisations offer a range of professional development opportunities including online courses and networks, Teach Meets, one day conferences and courses, and longer term programmes leading to personal or school accreditation. Many universities, notably Manchester, Oxford Brookes and Bath Spa, lead large scale professional development programmes in primary science. Teaching School Alliances and Science Learning Partnerships are increasing locally partnering with science education professionals to provide effective professional development and learning in primary science.
Just last week 100s of primary teachers attended the Association for Science Education Annual Conference in Liverpool. The primary programme was vast and varied, including sessions on teaching specific concepts in science and working scientifically, introductions to new technologies and resources, policy and research analyses. There were lectures, seminar and workshops, TeachMeets and the famous ASE Primary Pop Up where teachers turn up with something that has worked in their classroom to share with others. The atmosphere of the entire conference was buzzy, as ASE old timers and newbies shared experiences and expertise. It was professional development at its most accessible with teachers choosing the sessions that appealed to them or ticked a developmental need (ideally both), or simply browsing the expedition and stopping for a coffee with old and friends. The conference clearly met the characteristics of effective CPD: It was focused on pupil learning and outcomes, was underpinned by robust evidence and expertise, was collaborative and challenging and facilitated the forging of longer term relationships and collegiality. ASE is the largest subject membership association in the UK.
The session that most convinced me of the importance of sustained professional learning for teachers was the opener to the primary conference, the Brenda Keogh lecture. The late Brenda Keogh was a very influential researcher, writer and CPD leader in primary science- and a champion of young teachers. She believed that every teacher has the right to be supported by, and to contribute to, his or her professional community. Active membership of the ASE is a key way that Brenda saw primary teachers develop professional confidence in science teaching and share expertise with others. The Brenda Keogh lecture is part of her legacy- a keynote at a major conference given by teachers for teachers.
This year’s took the form of a book launch, introducing the 4th Edition of the ASE Guide to Primary Science, mentioned at the beginning of this blog. There are 47 authors of this 25 chapter book, who critically consider aspects of science teaching, learning and leadership in a contemporary context. The reason that the author count is so high is that almost every chapter is written by an experienced writer with a less experienced but highly skilled practitioner co –writer, all ASE members of course. Several of these ‘new’ authors gave the lecture, describing the professional development journey that had brought them to this stage in their careers; and then sharing briefly the expertise they had developed in, amongst others, assessment, enquiry based learning, dialogic teaching, or using new technologies. Each of them described a different path but all had the same characteristics. They described purposeful engagement with CPD, collaboration via networks and support from experts, clear direction and encouragement from senior leadership. Above all they shared the knowledge that their professional learning was on-going, and sustained by their membership of ASE.
The sophisticated awareness these teachers had of the impact on their own practice of professional learning and the joy they shared in their achievements, convinced me that my fellow author and I were right to assert that development and learning in science should be part of all teachers’ professional lives.
Cordingley, P., Higgins, S., Greany, T., Buckler, N., Coles-Jordan, D., Crisp, B., Saunders, L., Coe, R. (2015) Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. London: Teacher Development Trust.
DfE (2016) Standard for teachers’ professional development. London: DfE.
Murphy C, Beggs J, Russell H, Melton L. (2005) Primary Horizons: Starting out in science. London: Wellcome Trust.
The Royal Society (2010) Science and mathematics education 5–14. A ‘state of the nation’ report. London: the Royal Society
The Royal Society Science Policy Centre (2014). Vision for science and mathematics education. London: The Royal Society
Serret, N. and Earle, S. ed., (2018). ASE Guide to Primary Science Education. 4th ed. Hatfield: Association for Science Education, pp.216-225.
Wellcome Trust (2013) The Deployment of Science and Maths Leaders in Primary Schools. London: Wellcome Trust.
Wellcome Trust (2017). ‘State of the nation’ report of UK primary science education. Leicester: CFE Research.
Jane Turner BA (Hons), PGCE, MEd, CsciTeach
Jane taught in primary schools in Hertfordshire and London. She is now the director of the Primary Science Quality Mark award scheme, based at the University of Hertfordshire where she is a principal lecturer in the School of Education. Jane is lead author of the 2011 ASE guide to Science Enquiry; It’s Not Fair Or Is it? which significantly influenced the new Primary National Curriculum for Science, has contributed to several primary and early years education publications and research projects and is series editor for Snap Science. She works as an advisor to the DfE, the BBC and the learned bodies on primary science assessment and curriculum.