In 2010 the Royal Society highlighted what they believed to be the “key issues in 5–11 education” in the United Kingdom. This was picked up by the Teaching Times and more mainstream news outlets like the BBC at the time. In this report, as well as criticising assessment at the primary level, the RS highlighted the lack of teachers who are science or maths specialists.
A primary teachers must have a grade C in maths and English GCSE and a degree. However, the School Workforce Census performed each year by the Department for Education does not measure the number of UK primary teachers whose degrees are in science or maths subjects. The RS report says that data from the General Teaching Council for England (GTCE) show a small minority of primary teachers can be classed as maths or science “specialists” as seen below.
This should be an area of concern. The RS points out that “a negative or poor educational experience may easily change [pupils’] perceptions and potentially switch them off any subject, possibly for life.”
Worrying then, it has also been documented that a large proportion of primary teachers have a lack of self-confidence in their scientific abilities. One particular long-term study into understanding of scientific concepts in schools agreed that teachers have low levels of understanding in key scientific areas. This is probably unsurprising given that the majority have had no formal science tuition since A-levels or earlier.
Primary education methods have undergone plenty of change recently, but modern trends have seen an increasing emphasis on pupils learning through hands-on activities and learning through play – the “Foundation Phase” and Forest Schools initiatives being two examples. In worldwide studies on teaching primary-level science, it has been shown that teaching in this manner benefits academic attainment. This also opens an opportunity to bring (some) science education out of classroom-based learning, and instead to focus on students finding things out and asking questions themselves. Sadly, the lack of teachers’ confidence has forestalled this in science lessons, leading to a measurable difference in pupils’ enjoyment of science. The less creative and collaborative science is perceived to be, the fewer pupils enjoy the subject.
A Turkish study has predictably seen that science-related views of teachers strongly affect those of their students, however unintentionally. Hence, those who eventually become primary teachers themselves will likely maintain this status quo, as it has been seen that teaching patterns are heavily influenced by their own past experiences as pupils. Primary education needs an injection of scientific expertise to inspire greater participation and enthusiasm for STEM subjects, whether it be in the form of encouraging scientists into teaching, or by enacting a final recommendation from an above study:
What [teachers] need are the big ideas, the broad understanding that will enable them to guide children’s learning. The aim cannot be to enable teachers to know the answers to all the questions children may ask. This would not only be impossible, given the creative curiosity of young children, but often inadvisable when children would not understand the answer. What teachers need to have at their fingertips are strategies for handling children’s questions and turning them to the advantage of investigative learning.