the ero on primary school science: ‘should do better’

The Education Review Office’s report on primary school science is all over the news today: here at Yahoo, for example. You’ll find the original paper, Science in the New Zealand Curriculum: Years 5 to 8, on the ERO website. It does not fill me with joy and the following quotes from the report’s Overview should show why:

Effective practice in science teaching and learning in Years 5 to 8 was evident in less than a third of the 100 schools [surveyed for the report]. The wide variability of practices between highly effective and ineffective practices was found across all school types.


Few principals and teachers demonstrated an understanding of how they could integrate the National Standards in reading, writing and mathematics into their science programmes. In the less effective schools principals saw science learning as a low priority. They struggled to maintain a balance between effective literacy and numeracy teaching, and providing sufficient time for teaching other curriculum areas, but particularly science.


Knowledge-based programmes were evident rather than interactive thinking, talking, and experimenting approaches… Student involvement in experimental work was variable.

So – I was saddened by the report, & I wasn’t exactly surprised either. I’ve written previously (here, for example) about the problems and challenges faced by primary school teachers wanting to enhance their students’ understanding of & engagement with science. Back in 2010, Bull et al presented data showing that the average NZ primary school student spends 45 hours a year studying science (it was 66 hours in 2002), with only 6 other countries of those surveyed spending less time on the subject.  The other worrying point was that the number of students reporting that they never did experiments increased between 1999 & 2007. At the time I commented that it could simply have been that the students didn’t always recognise when they were involved in science activities, but also that at least some primary teachers might lack confidence in teaching science & so omitted it from any integrated lessons. And indeed, the 2010 ERO report cited by Bull & her colleagues found that 

most primary teachers did not have a science background and that low levels of science knowledge and science teaching expertise contributed to the variation in quality of science teaching across schools… [and] that many teachers had not learned about science in their pre-service teacher training.

Nor am I surprised that schools & teachers struggle to balance the literacy & numeracy requirements of National Standards with encouraging students to a deeper understanding of science. After all, it’s not that long ago since schools lost the services of school science advisers, who’d been tasked with supporting science education and teachers’ professional development in this area. That loss makes it rather ironic that this latest ERO report recommends that the Ministry should look at ways to provide such support and ongoing professional development in areas including:

  • integrating literacy and numeracy into science teaching and learning
  • considering the place of National Standards for achievement in reading, writing and mathematics across all learning areas, including science
  • developing an approach to inquiry based learning that maintains the integrity of different learning areas, including science.

A ‘back to the future’ prescription, in a way. And, if we accept that science and technology and engineering and mathematics are crucial to our future, it’s a prescription that needs to be met. Students who have positive, engaging experiences of those subjects at primary school might just be more likely to want to continue their engagement at higher levels. Including going on to study at university level. In light of today’s statement by the Tertiary Education Minister, Stephen Joyce, that the Government intends to "rebalance tertiary education toward science, technology, engineering and maths", then all science educators (primary through tertiary) need to look at how to support teachers and students in developing that engagement. 

And in that same light: next week is NZASE National Primary Science Week, set up to offer both engaging activities for primary students and free professional development opportunities for their teachers. There’s a lot going on in the regions, and they’re a brilliant opportunity for scientists in the universities, research institutions, and industries to help deliver the support that our colleagues in the primary schools desperately need. So, a question for my colleagues: what can you do to support this event, if not this year, then next? It could just make a difference, in your own classroom or workplace, in the future!

A.Bull, J.Gilbert, H.Barwick, R.Hipkins & R.Baker (2010) Inspired by science: a paper commissioned by the Royal Society and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER), August 2010

Education Review Office (2012) Science in the New Zealand Curriculum: Years 5 to 8.

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