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Reviving enthusiasm for science at secondary school

Students looking at magnets

Dr Mick Allen, senior lecturer in the School of Education, has been examining the apparent decline in the interest in science when children transfer to secondary school. In his paper, he summarised a selection of recent research on primary to secondary transfer, aiming to suggest new ways forward that may help alleviate these problems.

Current research suggests two possible reasons for the change in attitude towards science once pupils enter secondary school. The first is the repetition of work. Despite an expectation of learning novel and exciting science, Year 7 pupils are frequently disappointed. They find secondary science lessons cover familiar topics covered during their primary years, and quickly become bored and even disillusioned with science.

When pupils arrive at secondary school they also have high expectations about working in sophisticated laboratories and it is well established that pupils find practical work motivating. However, the true nature of secondary science – that of a very crowded curriculum – means written work takes up the lion’s share of lesson time, and practical work is often accompanied by further writing tasks.

A second key reason is dips in retainment. There is strong evidence that the pupils’ rate of learning decreases, or in some cases their knowledge and understanding drops to a level lower than when they left primary school. In addition, secondary teachers are not informed about the content of primary science curricula which leads to an uncoordinated shift at transition, resulting in topics being repeated.

However, if science becomes understandable, it becomes interesting. Other reasons for a loss of enthusiasm may be linked to the more complex scientific ideas presented by secondary teachers. Students may become de-motivated, permanently switching off from science they view as being ‘too hard’.

Dr Allen suggests teachers change their practices in order to ensure that the transfer from Key Stage 2 to 3 is as smooth as possible for pupils. A new government-funded initiative, for example, could involve compulsory training focused on the problems associated with transfer to change teachers’ behaviours and attitudes.

Secondly, through Ofsted, the Department for Education (DfE) can encourage initiatives that help primary schools make closer links with secondary school science departments and enable secondary teachers to better understand the work that children carry out at Key Stage 2. New rules could be introduced to influence how both primary and secondary schools deal with transfer. There is also scope to reshape how science is taught at Key Stage 3 so that that it lives up to the high expectations of Year 7 pupils and is more understandable.