Press release

Science teaching must maintain pupils' curiosity

School leaders and teachers must maintain pupils’ curiosity in science if Britain plc is to compete in the global race.

An Ofsted report, Maintaining curiosity: a survey into science education in schools, finds that the more pupils do science for themselves, the more they learn, the more interested they become, and the more likely they are to continue to study science in the future. This will present them with opportunities and help the UK maintain an internationally competitive economy.

In visiting 180 schools Ofsted inspectors found that strong leadership and skilled teachers generally give young people a profound knowledge and understanding of science. However, Ofsted finds that:

  • current GCSE exams do not test scientific practical skills enough, so that teachers often do not see the need to teach those skills to pupils thoroughly – this leads to too many pupils being poorly prepared for any science learning or for any job that involves science
  • exam entries in the sciences show a stark difference between fee-paying schools and non-selective state schools. Figures for 2013 show that in fee-paying schools almost one in four students sat A level chemistry exams and 17 per cent sat physics, compared to around one in seven for chemistry and 10 per cent for physics in non-selective state schools
  • nearly half of primary schools are not setting targets for science because they do not think that the subject is a priority
  • too few female pupils study physics after the age of 16 and still more drop the subject at 17

To help tackle these problems Ofsted recommends:

  • school leaders and teachers must challenge assumptions about gender and science more
  • government should ensure that science qualifications include an assessment of the skills that are needed to undertake scientific enquiry
  • head teachers and governors must make sure there is enough time for science lessons and enough laboratory space so that pupils can do scientific experiments
  • school science leaders should monitor the future academic and career paths of pupils who continue with science, and see how these compare with national averages
  • science teachers should give pupils the space to undertake scientific investigations, and acknowledge what pupils, particularly the most able, already know

HM Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said:

Few parents, pupils and teachers would dispute the fact that science is fundamentally important. It opens up further education and work opportunities for young people, and helps England maintain an internationally competitive economy.

Our inspectors found that many pupils across the country are benefitting from highly skilled and well-informed teaching which stretches and inspires them. But there is not enough. We also found that far too few girls study physics, which deprives them of opportunities and leaves the country with a diminished talent pool.

When pupils are taught well, and taught how to think for themselves, the better they learn the subject. This helps them learn scientific knowledge, deepens understanding and encourages progression to further and higher education.

If leaders and teachers raise expectations, better outcomes in science will follow.

Ofsted finds that the best teaching:

  • is driven by determined and skilled leaders that put scientific enquiry at the heart of lessons so that pupils learn by working through experiments
  • sets out to sustain young people’s natural curiosity
  • is informed by accurate assessments of how well pupils are understanding scientific concepts

Note to editors

The report’s findings were based on a survey of 89 secondary and 91 primary schools between 2010 and 2013. The survey aims to support schools in implementing the new national curriculum, and present best practice to teachers.

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