What are the national curriculum expectations for science?
With a plethora of online resources and schemes of work available to primary teachers today, it can be easy to lose sight of exactly what you should be teaching.
School children learning about energy
There are lots of amazingly useful guides, tools, and quick-wins out there that can enhance your science practice and help engage your children, but as you scroll and search through everything, deciding where to start and what to trust for improving your science teaching can be challenging. Let's re-focus our attention on the national curriculum expectations for science.
How do I know what to teach?
In England the National curriculum in England: science programmes of study document is where you need to begin. This document lays out the statutory guidance for primary science. If you are not familiar enough with it (or if it has been a while since you looked at it), I strongly recommend re-reading it. Far from being a scary, incomprehensible, doorstop-sized document, it is in fact a clear and easy to digest guide that not only provides you with the necessary content, but also gives some important context to its rationale and organisation. There are similar national curriculum documents for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The topics and knowledge/conceptual content in England (i.e. the 'what' of science) are clearly organised into a 'programme of study' for each year group. There are four topics in years 1-2 and five topics in years 3-6. This is where a teacher will find exactly what the children in their class should 'know, apply and understand' about each topic by the end of the year. The non-statutory notes and guidance for each topic are also useful for providing extra detail and ideas for how to teach the content.
For example, in Year 2 (England), Uses of everyday materials, pupils should be taught to:
- identify and compare the suitability of a variety of everyday materials, including wood, metal, plastic, glass, brick, rock, paper and cardboard for particular uses
- find out how the shapes of solid objects made from some materials can be changed by squashing, bending, twisting and stretching
No more, no less!
But (there is always a 'but'), no learning should be considered in isolation. It is important to be aware of the knowledge and skills that your current class should have developed in their previous years so that you know where you are starting from. If they do not have a secure understanding of say, materials, from their previous teaching, you will need to address this before you can teach your year's objectives. As important is knowing what they will be going onto next, so that you can prepare them appropriately for their future learning. Identifying the related topics from other years will allow you to make sense of the progression of knowledge.
In Wales, the progression of children's understanding is laid out clearly in the descriptions of learning for each statement of what matters, which is described as a 'journey through the continuum of learning'; a journey that is not linear but cyclical, so pupils will revisit learning and make links and adjustments to what they understand based on new experiences. Similarly, in Scotland, the experiences and outcomes document sets out the progression of knowledge and skills across the year groups for each of the five topic areas.
The working scientifically component of the curriculum in England (i.e. the 'how' of science) is organised by key stage and it sets out the practical scientific methods, processes and skills that pupils should be taught to use through their learning of the conceptual content. Working in a scientific way should not, therefore, to be taught as a separate element of the curriculum but must be embedded into the teaching of the conceptual content. For example, when learning about the names of common wild and garden plants pupils can be guided to ask simple questions, observe closely, and identify and classify. Pupils should be given opportunities to answer scientific questions using the five types of scientific enquiry: observing over time; pattern seeking; identifying, classifying and grouping; comparative and fair testing (controlled investigations); and researching using secondary sources. In a similar way, when teaching The World Around Us in Northern Ireland, pupils must be given opportunities to develop the three 'Cross-Curricular Skills' and five 'Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities'.
The scientific vocabulary that pupils should understand and use accurately when talking about their learning is also included in the national curriculum; much of it in the non-statutory notes and guidance for each topic. As with the conceptual and working scientifically content, you must ensure you are aware of which words your pupils need to understand and use.
Why is it important to stick to the national curriculum?
The short answer is that it is statutory and, therefore, as a teacher in a state primary school, you don't have a choice. However, to look at it more positively, the progression of knowledge and skills has been given careful consideration to ensure that it is gradual and matched to expectations for children's age and level of development.
With this in mind, it isn't worthwhile teaching a concept to pupils if it is too advanced or if they haven't got the secure foundations for their understanding from their previous learning. This is why, even if you cover all the conceptual content for a topic, you should not move on to the next year's curriculum. Rather, it is better to deepen the understanding of the current year's curriculum expectations, including how to work scientifically.
How do I use it effectively in my teaching?
The national curriculum should provide the foundation for all your science planning. Think of it as a reference document that you continually refer to, perhaps even annotating, highlighting and ticking off objectives as you teach them. At the very least it is where you should start from when planning your sequence of lessons for a topic. If you use a scheme of work or other online resources when planning, be sure to check that they cover the correct content as laid out in the curriculum.
Without needing to worry about what your children need to know, you have the exciting challenge of thinking of how to make it interesting and meaningful to your children so that they understand it and can then apply it to their own experiences.
As a subject leader, it is good practice to refer directly to national expectations documents when designing the science curriculum for your school. As you decide on the organisation of the topics over the year for each year group, keep in mind how it best supports progression of learning through the school, facilitates best use of the resources available and caters for children in your school; e.g. does your school have a focus on outdoor or cross-curricular learning?
Vitally important to this – for teachers and subject leaders alike – is to ensure that you have paid attention to the 'size' of each topic and how this is mapped across the year. For example, in Year 5 (England) for a topic like Properties and changes of materials (with six quite detailed objectives) you will probably need more than one half term to cover everything, whereas Living things and their habitats (with only two, more straightforward objectives) you won't need an entire half term.
An additional aspect to consider is which topics can't be taught in an uninterrupted sequence of lessons at one time of the year. For example, in order to understand seasonal changes pupils need to observe the changes in weather in all four seasons, so the lessons must be spread out across the year. Similarly, working scientifically skills can't be taught in discreet slots and need to be spread across the year, being revisited when a knowledge objective provides a good opportunity to practise that particular investigative skill.
Where can I go for additional support?
Explorify has a number of resources available to help with planning ideas and mapping the enquiry types to Explorify activities.
We have a collection of topic guides, which provide support for teaching the curriculum. Each guide outlines what children need to know for the topic, provides the background science you need to know and makes suggestions for how you might teach it in your classroom.
We also have the Science Leader Toolkit which provides guidance for subject leaders on the curriculum, and much more!
The National STEM Learning Centre at York has a range of fantastic CPD to support teachers and leaders with planning for science: https://www.stem.org.uk/cpd
PLAN Assessment have excellent knowledge and working scientifically matrices, which provide very clear guidance on the national expectations for science in England: https://www.planassessment.com/teacher
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