What makes a fantastic science department?

Written by: Adam Little | Published:
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The head has to value the sciences first. He then has to pay the science teachers a decent wage ...

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What are the secrets to success for a great secondary school science department? Adam Little suggests three key elements and describes examples of best practice

During my teaching career, I have been very fortunate to work in progressive and forward-thinking science departments. And since coming out of the classroom I have had the chance to see what is going on in science departments across the country – and it has opened my eyes to the wealth of talent that we have teaching the scientists of tomorrow.

I observed a lesson recently where the teacher was teaching about waves. The students had to find out all about the wave’s properties, why knowing these is important, and how this leads on to their uses in everyday life. Before this, he wanted them to calculate the speed of a wave. He gave them a tray of water, a meter rule and a stopwatch – no instructions, no demonstration – and told them: “Off you go then!”

To some teachers, myself included, this situation could fill you with dread. What if the students just mess around? How will this exercise show progression? What if they don’t know what to do – they will just sit there!

But within minutes, the students were working together, sharing ideas, trialling them and refining them.
What we were witnessing was independent learning taking place – students taking ownership of their own learning – and also differentiated learning, as each student discussed ideas to their own levels.

So what are the ingredients that come together to make a fantastic science department, where innovative lessons like this one are the norm? I think there are three key elements.

Enrichment and enhancement

When visiting a school recently, I was able to see some of the excellent work they did, which fell under the enrichment and enhancement strand of the curriculum.

For me, the key thing is that this kind of work is not just limited to out-of-classroom experiences for a select number of high-attaining students.

Mandy Quinton, STEM co-ordinator at St Clement Danes School in Hertfordshire, gave me a great example of this. She explained: “Sometimes it is just the small things that make the biggest difference. A couple of year 8 students were showing an inability to engage in science lessons and school as a whole, but are both keen fishermen.

“They have been put in charge of looking after the brown trout as part of a local project with the Chilterns River Association to repopulate the River Chess with trout. Their behaviour and interest in school has noticeably changed, due to their ownership of the project.”

When I met these students, it was fantastic seeing and hearing the passion in their eyes and voices. These students had previously been disengaged in school, especially science, but here they were talking about pH levels of water, life cycles of fish, and much more.

The department had found a hook (pun intended) and the students could see how this work related to real life and the world around them.

Upskill every teacher

From personal experience, being able to develop and improve as a teacher has always been a driving force for me. I have been lucky that the schools I have worked at have given me time off to attend CPD, and offered me career progression since I started as an NQT.

Hertfordshire and Essex High School enable their staff to develop through CPD, which is shown to have a positive impact upon their students too. Faculty leader of science Mary Compton explained: “CPD is carefully targeted and we are in the position that we have access ... to high-quality CPD. Indeed for some teaching staff their development includes delivering CPD and they therefore move their practice far beyond that of a regular subject teacher.”

Mathematics in science

Learning and teaching play a key role every single day, in every lesson, within a science department.
One area that can make a huge difference are links between departments, especially the mathematics and science departments, so that students can see the links between the skills they use in both subjects.
How many times have you heard your students say: “My maths teacher says you can’t have a curved line of best fit” or “That’s not what we do in maths”?

By linking up and building a common language, we can help students to see the relevance of what they are learning, while also removing any confusion.

Here is one example from the Priory Academy, Lincoln School of Science and Technology. Teacher Giles Ennis explained: “We enjoy excellent links with other departments within the school and teachers in science make a point of making links with mathematics and English to ensure that students are aware of the skills they have from these and other subjects when they are applying them. An example would be asking students to write to explain or inform, or to write to persuade during a task.

“We have also enlisted the help of literacy and numeracy specialists from English and maths to help us to understand more fully what students know, where they struggle and what we can do to overcome any barriers to learning.”


There are so many things that make up a fantastic department, not just my three key elements – from supportive leadership to enthusiastic and knowledgeable team members. But I think if you can nail these core elements, you will be well on the way to having a really great science department.

  • Adam Little worked for more than 10 years as a physics teacher with a passion for innovative teaching and learning strategies that promote independent learning. He now works as a professional development leader, specialising in physics at the National STEM Learning Centre in York and leads on Science Mark.

Science Mark

Stem Learning has created Science Mark, a quality standard to celebrate school’s successes. You can find out more at www.stem.org.uk/science-mark

Hi Seamus,

With the heading 'Upskill every teacher' I can see how this might appear misleading. With Science Mark we look to see how every member of the department is valued (not just teaching staff). In fact, one of the applications ended up being completed by a technician who also went into teaching science due to the passion, enthusiasm and confidence they had received over the years, and the recognition of all the excellent work that they do. I hope this clarifies the situation for you.

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The head has to value the sciences first. He then has to pay the science teachers a decent wage (and lose any uncaring heads of science,,because they set the time for three subjects), ..before taking his own £150k+ salary.
If they can't do that, then don't offer sciences. What use are UE and D grades?

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A disappointing article. Adam, suggests three key elements and describes examples of best practice. I suggest four. The fourth, Adam has very briefly alluded to in his conclusion. The three key elements area fantastic in isolation. I am a Science technician with 23 years experience, six of these at senior level. If Adam is suggesting key elements then surely why not acknowledge and discuss in more depth the role of "supportive leadership to enthusiastic and knowledgeable team members", within a department. This would include the Head of Science or Department, the individual teachers and finally, equally as important, laboratory technicians.
Over the past few years I have witnessed on technician who has moved into teaching science. She has acknowledged that her time and experience as a science technician has equipped her with the necessary skills and competency to carry out her teaching duties effectively. Conversely, I now have a retired teacher of thirty years teaching Biology, who now works as one of my science technician team. This gentlemen only now fully realizes the quality and level of support science technicians provide to teaching staff and team leaders.

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