Evidence review identifies keys to Pupil Premium science success

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Developing scientific reasoning and literacy skills is key to improving outcomes in science education for Pupil Premium students.

A review of international research evidence on science attainment, has been undertaken by Oxford University academics and published by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Royal Society.

The review reveals strong evidence that study programmes that allow pupils to design experiments to test theories and the impact of things can develop scientific reasoning ability – one of the strongest predictors of success in the sciences.

As such, the report recommends that teachers guide pupils’ scientific reasoning by setting questions that can be investigated and getting them to design fair tests.

Furthermore, the review finds that literacy is a key barrier to science as it affects how well pupils can understand scientific vocabulary and prepare scientific reports. As such, interventions to improve reading comprehension could have a positive impact on science outcomes.

Elsewhere, disadvantaged pupils face a lack of “opportunities to learn” which the researchers linked to lower achievement in science.

There is evidence that programmes such as school science clubs, visits to museums, university laboratories, or visits by scientists in schools can raise outcomes.

Another factor is metacognitive ability. The report finds that pupils’ ability to think about their own cognitive activities is related to their success in science, as well as to their socio-economic levels, and “an intervention that involved metacognitive training did have an effect on pupils’ science attainment”.

The attainment gap in science mirrors that in maths and English. The gap is first noticeable at key stage 1 and gets wider throughout primary and secondary school and on to A level. It grows particularly strongly between the ages of five and seven and 11 and 16.

The analysis, based on 2015 figures, shows that pupils who are eligible for the Pupil Premium (or have been at any point during the past six years) score a mean level in key stage 2 science of 4, compared to 4.36 for better-off pupils.

At key stage 4, poorer pupils are less likely to take science GCSE than their peers (77.5 per cent vs 90.4 per cent) and less likely to achieve an A* to C grade if they do (41.8 per cent vs 69.5 per cent).

Furthermore, only 10.2 per cent of disadvantaged pupils took three individual sciences at GCSE compared to 25.7 per cent of better off pupils.

One key finding is that early intervention will not suffice to tackle the attainment gap. The review warns that the crucial target periods are the ages of five to seven and 11 to 16 – during which the science gap grows particularly strongly.

The report states: “It is suggested that early intervention is not sufficient. These ages coincide with the timing of important changes in children’s cognitive development, and it is unlikely that pre-school interventions would suffice for promoting the cognitive skills that are mastered later in children’s lives. Interventions relevant to these time points should be prioritised in research.”

The EEF is to use the review evidence to inform new guidance for teachers on teaching science, due to be published in spring 2018. The guidance will set out practical and evidence-based recommendations for teaching science in primary and secondary schools.

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “The data in the report is clear. Pupils from disadvantaged homes are much less likely than their peers to get good grades in science and to go on to take a science subject at A level and beyond.

“Helping schools to use evidence and to understand better the most effective ways to improve results is the best way to tackle this country’s stark science attainment gap. This review identifies some promising approaches with the potential to raise standards and close the gap.”

Professor Tom McLeish, chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee, added: “Scientific literacy deepens enjoyment of the world, empowers people to make informed choices and equips them to work in an advanced economy. To secure the health and wellbeing of our nation, we must ensure that children from all walks in life receive the best education possible to develop the strong foundations needed for our future economic prosperity.

“Though the attainment gap is observable from the first year in school, it is encouraging that certain educational programmes that improve children’s literacy or their awareness and understanding of their own thought processes show promise in reducing this gap.”

  • The report – Review of Socio-Economic Status and Science Learning in Formal Educational Settings (September 2017) – can be downloaded via http://bit.ly/2ynDruC


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