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EEF and the Royal Society publish review of the evidence on the science attainment gap

22 September 2017

Testing theories through experiments and trials is crucial for pupils to learn science and could improve results for disadvantaged pupils in primary and secondary schools, according to a new report (PDF) published by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Royal Society today. 

Researchers from the Department of Education at the University of Oxford reviewed the best international research to identify the interventions and approaches for which there is evidence of a positive impact on young people’s learning outcomes, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

They found good evidence that the ability to reason scientifically – by testing hypotheses through well-controlled experiments - is a strong predictor of later success in the sciences and that programmes that allow pupils to design experiments that test the impact of one thing on another can develop this skill. Many effective programmes give teachers training to guide their pupils’ scientific reasoning by setting questions that can be investigated and getting them to design fair tests.

The researchers found that the strongest factor affecting pupils’ science scores is how well they understand written texts. According to the report, poor literacy skills can affect how well a pupil is able to understand scientific vocabulary and to prepare scientific reports. This suggests that strategies to boost disadvantaged pupils’ reading comprehension could have a positive impact on their achievement in science too.  

The report finds that lack of ‘opportunities to learn’ is a major factor related to lower achievement in science. This is the basis for the success of other strategies identified in the report as effective, including school science clubs and trips to museums. The review found good evidence that programmes that allow pupils to visit places like a university laboratory or a museum, or get scientists to visit a school, can boost science grades for secondary school pupils, provided that the experiences are set up in carefully structured ways. 

The report also analysed attainment data to measure the extent of the gap in science outcomes between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off classmates. The findings confirm that there is a gap in science outcomes at every stage in the education system, which first becomes apparent at Key Stage 1 (ages 5 – 7) and only gets wider throughout primary and secondary school and on to A-level. The gap is as wide as it is in English and maths and grows particularly strongly between the ages 5-7 and 11-16. 

The report finds that it is not lack of motivation to learn science that is contributing to the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off classmates. Analysis of attainment data finds that the biggest predictors of pupils’ attainment in science are their levels of literacy and their scientific reasoning ability.

The EEF will use this review to inform 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 school. 

Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“The data in today’s 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. Today’s review identifies some promising approaches with the potential to raise standards and close the gap.”

Professor Tom McLeish FRS, Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee, said:

“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.”

Find out more about education research at the Royal Society.