HMI David Brown sets me some homework

Today (29 June 2014), the HMI David Brown (@DavidBrownHMI) set me some home work. It’s a long series of tweets (and I don’t posses the technological know how to capture them and place them here….sorry). Essentially, David asked Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) if the subject based surveys that Ofsted carry out could be seen as useful evidence. I interjected that they were likely to be biased. David effectively challenged me to look and be more specific. There are a lot of these things, and it would be a shame if they were of no general use to the edu-world. Now, to give him his due, David suggested I look at some of the more tightly focussed reports (such as Pupil Premium or Nurture Groups), but it was already too late. I had opened the ‘Maintaining curiosity – A survey into science education in schools, 2014’ already, and this is the one I wanted to assess for ‘usefulness’ and effects of bias on the findings. Things move fast on Twitter.

So, what did I find? This report document is a summary (even the full report is only 52 pages), and reads like Ofsted Inspection reports, but with less evidence cited. There are a lot of assertions without evidence to back them up (that is, the evidence is not reported, although I guess it does/did exist), and much of this appears to rest on Ofsted inspection criteria generally. So, much reference was made to Outstanding schools, and Outstanding Science lessons. Clearly, if there are significant doubts with respect to those inspection criteria/processes…..

This investigation appeared to me to be an attempt to see how close schools were to the desired approach to teaching Science. Hence, the evidence gathering was slightly circular, with excellence being declared for schools that were close to teaching Science in the proscribed way. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. Let me quote a few paragraphs from the executive summary of the report:

“A high quality science education provides the foundations for understanding the world through the specific disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics. Science has changed our lives and is vital to the world’s future prosperity, and all pupils should be taught essential aspects of the knowledge, methods, processes and uses of science. Through building up a body of key foundational knowledge and concepts, pupils should be encouraged to recognise the power of rational explanation and develop a sense of excitement and curiosity about natural phenomena. They should be encouraged to understand how science can be used to explain what is occurring, predict how things will behave, and analyse causes.

This report highlights the importance of teaching science for understanding. For pupils to achieve well in science, they must not only acquire the necessary knowledge, but also understand it’s value, enjoy the experience of working scientifically, and sustain their interest in learning it. Pupils in schools need to discover the concepts revealed through observing scientific phenomena and conducting experimental investigations for themselves. Then they are more likely to continue to study science and use that learning for work, for family, and to contribute as informed citizens.”

I read this and thought that the key aspects were:

– a ‘good’ education in Science would lead to citizens knowing how science can be used, and be able to critically evaluate scientific claims in the ‘media’
– that if schools were teaching science for understanding, then pupils were likely to continue to study science (in particular, beyond 16)

It seems to me that here are the ‘desired’ outcomes, whereas the other things mentioned (such as conducting experimental investigations for themselves) are potential means to get to these outcomes. Note, that the text above includes the sentence : This report highlights the importance of teaching science for understanding. This led me to believe that the report would contain evidence to substantiate this point (especially as Maintaining Curiosity is the report title). It did not. The report does mention the importance of teaching science for understanding, but doesn’t present any evidence for this ‘importance’.

There was apparently no methodology for answering either of the two key aspects that I have pulled out of the executive summary. In particular, it would have been interesting to know if there were higher numbers of pupils (especially girls) continuing to study science in those schools who were outstanding, and whose science teaching was also judged outstanding. In other words, whether the approach to science teaching advocated by Ofsted (and the Government) in the report was actually delivering the desired outcomes.

In summary, this report investigated how closely schools were implementing the Ofsted desired way of teaching science. It gave guidance on some of the weaknesses observed and helpful advice to teach science in the way Ofsted wanted (I guess this might have changed with the new National Curriculum?). It did not, though, add anything to our understanding of the bigger questions about whether pupils were better informed about science and the scientific method, and if they were more likely to go on to study it post-16, or engage more effectively as active citizens. Was it biased? That depends on what evidence was collected that might have contradicted the worthiness of the approach advocated by Ofsted, but not reported…or indeed, deciding not to collect evidence that might have led there. It is, though, definitely ideologically driven.

[On a more personal note, I have not taken much interest in how science has been taught in schools. I am intrigued as to what is an acceptable number of pupils continuing to study science at post-16, and how we determine what would be acceptable. I am also wondering where the emphasis on pupils doing experiments for themselves, and asking their own scientific questions (which they then design experiments to answer) comes from. I didn’t do this myself until I was doing a PhD……such things are really difficult to do well, and depend on a very good grasp of the fundamentals, and take a lot of time. Science is built on everything that has come before, and progress is a painstaking process.]


4 thoughts on “HMI David Brown sets me some homework

  1. Ian Lynch

    Have to say that I find it surprising that you never did any experimental science yourself until PhD. I regularly blew up my parent’s garage, set fire to stuff and learnt about gravity and physiology through sport which I was mad about as a teenager. All part of a child learning science. I did controlled experiments to see if food supplements actually made any difference to my weightlifting and decided they only thing they did was lighten my meagre cash supplies. I also learnt that learning some key knowledge in physics was better than trying t find it all out for myself. But then my take is that balanced diets are usually better for health than extreme veganism or carnivorousness 😉

    1. chemistrypoet Post author

      Yep. I was never into blowing stuff up or any ‘home’ experiments. It’s entirely possible that this is an aberration in terms of scientists, I concede. It may explain why I ended up in Industry rather than Academia…..(or may not)…..on the other hand I’ve always been into reading…..

  2. Ephemeral321 (@Ephemeral321)

    Good to hear it is ideologically driven. From my experience of accessing my child’s primary records I suspect that Ofsted will struggle to provide meaningful reports when a lot of evidence is not being properly recorded in schools.
    My child’s record shows actions in one year for interventions that disappear in the next year. As an ex-auditor (business) I would expect this to mean it was closed. I would follow-up with questions about how it was actioned, outcome, bearing on wider school issues, and seek evidence, etc. I like to assume Ofsted Inspectors do the same.
    The fact that these records are currently not recording information that could reflect negatively on the school, that complaints are not sequentially numerical, that I still can’t receive bullying log numbers that relate to my child leads me to think that even though the ideology may be there, not enough emphasis is placed on schools having robust recording systems in place, and the evidence gathering by ofsted is not robust enough.

    1. chemistrypoet Post author

      Well, from the point of view of using the report as ‘evidence’, the ideological nature of the report means that it isn’t objective research. On the other hand, your comment is really about the role of Ofsted and their apparent failure to spot where the school management is not carrying out basic accountability functions, like logging and monitoring interventions and their effects. On this I agree. Ofsted appear to be poor at getting behind the surface SLT hype and seeing into the truth of the SLT operations. This is one of the reasons that I think the current Ofsted is not fit for purpose. My own view is that SLT need to be held to account for how they are running the school, how they are ensuring a level playing field amongst staff and pupils. The accountability function should focus heavily on the SLT and ensure that good practice in their operation is in place. The SLT have the capacity to help things to run smoothly, to empower staff and give effective support…..or not.


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