The myth of freedom: the new science curriculum for primary schools.

For those interested in a class teacher’s view of the new curriculum: 

          A Review of the Proposed Primary Science Curriculum   March 2013


  • The imbalance of the Key Stage 1 curriculum: Recently HMI and Ofsted reports both highlighted the bias towards biology in the Early Years curriculum.  Why then does the new Key Stage 1 curriculum lean more heavily than ever towards biology with sometimes more than 50% given over to biology topics like Plants, Habitats and Living Things?
  • The decrease in rigor and content in Key Stage 1: The Key Stage 1 Programme of Study now has ten topics where previously there was more – Light, Sound and Electricity have been moved to Key Stage 2.  The infant programme of study was already considered by teachers to be over simplistic, largely reflecting bodies of knowledge the children might know outside school anyway. The serendipity and joy of discovering new things seem stifled in the infant curriculum.
  • No consideration of content against teaching time: As the Key Stage 1 bodies of knowledge have been decreased there will not be enough science to teach across all six half terms. This could mean the profile of science will be lessened within schools and there could be terms when no science is taught at all. For some of the Key Stage 1 topics, there are only one or two bullet points in the statutory requirements for the programme of study. For example, Year 2 – Movement, “pupils should be taught to notice and describe how things are moving, using simple comparisons such as faster and slower” and “compare how different things move.” These two points are the proposed knowledge content for 6 and 7 year olds for a whole topic. Many teachers will not have the time, or know-how, to expand these areas of science sufficiently; the pressures on teachers are unlikely to allow for this. It is possible that these teaching objectives become simple sound bites taught without any depth. Previously, the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) wrote the curriculum and also accompanying teaching units which expanded the knowledge areas giving teachers the means to deepen the teaching and learning. The QCA is now closed and all materials are archived.  The teaching and learning opportunities for 5 to 7 year olds are therefore minimal because the statutory requirements proposed are so basic and there appears to be no corresponding support materials. The minimum entitlement to school children should not be set at such a low level.
  • Curriculum flexibility: it is suggested that “schools have the flexibility to introduce content earlier or later than set out in the programme of study.” However, if schools choose to add rigor to earlier years by teaching more of the later content, this will simply leave the latter years without content. The solution from the start should be a fuller content for the earlier years.
  • The lack of authentic progression between some topics: the progression between topics is at times limiting and tenuous. For example, Year 1, “pupils should be taught to identity and describe the basic structure of a variety of common flowering plants, including roots, stem/trunk, leaves and flowers”. Then in Year 3, “pupils should be taught to identify and describe the functions of different parts of flowering plants: roots, stem, leaves and flowers”. Effectively, this means that Year 1 pupils can point to and describe a leaf, stem or root, but should not be taught what these phenomena do. This means that a root can be described, but not its function?  If teachers do happen to teach the functionality, then one of the four requirements for Year 3 will have been already covered. Would it not have been wiser to include the basic functionality in Year 1, then in Year 3 revise and extend this? If this is perhaps the intention, then it should be explicit. This is one example of the progression between topics being vague.
  • Confusion and lack of parity in content: The level of knowledge content in some Key Stage 2 programmes of study does not show parity. For example, in Year 4, “pupils should be taught to observe and name a variety of sources of sound, noticing that we hear with our ears.” This is the old content for 5 and 6 year olds. We would hope by 8 and 9 years old English school children would know that they hear with their ears! At the same time, Year 4 will be introduced to ‘Evolution and Inheritance’. This is a very complex concept for this age group to grasp without some discussion about genetics, which is beyond primary science. Primary teachers may also not have the subject knowledge to teach this and so misconceptions are possible. Other anomalies exist, for example,   in the Year 3 Rocks topics, ‘igneous’ and ‘sedimentary’ are “simple physical properties” that should be taught, but ‘metamorphic’ should not be taught? Why would only two of the three rocks types be introduced? If there is a good reason, then it should be made explicit. This could cause confusion later to pupils who have been taught only two rock types.
  • Limited scope for young children to relate their lives to science and scientists: There is no statutory requirement to relate any science to real scientists or everyday people in young children’s lives who are ‘scientists’ ‘working scientifically.’ Scientists are mentioned in the non-statutory guidance, however they appear to be largely white males and most are historical figures from the past. There also seems to be no reference to current scientific innovations either. This only serves to embed the idea that science is for clever, old, white men.
  • Ambiguous wording in the statutory guidance for ‘Working Scientifically’: For Key Stage 1 it states that pupils should be “carrying out simple comparative tests.” Later in Lower Key Stage 2 it states that pupils should be “carrying out simple fair tests,” and in Upper Key Stage 2 it states that pupils should be “carrying out fair tests.” This means there is no mention of a fair test in Key Stage 1 yet the present Key Stage 1 curriculum states that pupils should “recognise when a test or comparison is unfair.’ Therefore, it is unclear if the new terminology relates to fair test comparisons or other types of comparisons pupils might make. Such things need to be made explicit,

        In addition, there is no mention of predicting until Key Stage 2. In the present Key Stage 1 curriculum it states that pupils should “think about what is expected to happen before deciding what to do” (page78). Why would such an important aspect of science be omitted?

  • Weak consideration of content and progression in vocabulary: It states that pupils should “build up an extended specialist vocabulary.”  However, there is no specific vocabulary given. This is seemingly left for largely non-specialist primary teachers to determine from the short guidance notes and their own understanding.

        Furthermore, the progression in scientific vocabulary is crude. In Key Stage 1, “pupils should read and spell scientific vocabulary”. In Lower Key Stage 2, “pupils should read and spell scientific vocabulary correctly and in Upper Key Stage 2, “pupils should read, spell and pronounce scientific vocabulary.”  In effect, this suggests pupils will only be taught to spell and say words properly later. This is nonsensical. Pupils should be taught to say and spell the appropriate science vocabulary correctly from the outset.

          In addition, important vocabulary has been omitted without good reason. For example, in the entire primary science physics curriculum ‘push and pull’ are not mentioned once, despite these being the accepted terms for forces.

  • No means to assess science teaching and learning: As there are no longer attainment targets, assessments or levels there are no specific outcomes for teachers to gauge primary science learning. This will mean there is limited accountability and less incentive to ensure children learn science effectively. This could downgrade science teaching and learning still further. For primary teachers the main focus is on English, Maths and Reading, if there is no accountability for teaching and learning in science there is less incentive to teach it well, nor ensure it is learnt well either because teachers are under too much pressure elsewhere. This is the nature of generalist teaching, when everything is taught by one teacher.


The proposed primary science curriculum is not more rigorous as purported, it is less rigorous.  It is vague in many instances and has large areas that will be confusing to non-specialist primary teachers. It is not appropriate to give primary teachers less information and support for science in the name of greater curriculum freedom and flexibility. Primary teachers are generalists. They need detailed guidance and support for specialist subjects like science. If the points above are not addressed, and the curriculum is rushed through to suit political aims, science at primary level is in danger of becoming a third rate subject, often taught poorly, and at times perhaps even not at all. Will this help pupils begin the secondary science curriculum? Is this in turn going to help produce a generation of scientifically literate people, let alone working scientists? I believe in its present state it cannot.



One thought on “The myth of freedom: the new science curriculum for primary schools.

  1. Andy P

    Well said, Im having the self same issue planning and implementing this curriculum. Not enough to give the teachers and empty terms with little to no content. The answer for us is to fill the gaps with the old units we used to teach. We know what we’re doing, even if the Government doesn’t

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s