By training the teachers to train the pupils, the burgeoning network of science learning centres aims to put Britain back at the leading edge of scientific exploration. Alison Redmore, director of the East of England SLC at the University of Hertfordshire explores its origins and its role

In 2001, the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee identified an urgent need for subject-specific CPD for science teachers. The report recognised that effective science educators have to be learners as well as teachers, keeping up to date with new scientific knowledge and with changes in curriculum content and teaching approaches. The UK has traditionally held a leading position in world science and to maintain that, it is important that young people find school science exciting and worth studying for longer. In response to this and numerous other calls for action, the DfES and the Wellcome Trust invested £51m in the creation of the National Network of Science Learning Centres. After a competitive tendering process the first science learning centres (SLCs) opened their doors in September 2004.

Who we are and what we do

There are 10 science learning centres: one to serve each of the nine English government regions and a National Science Learning Centre which provides training for anyone from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Most of the centres are run by a consortium of organisations, which vary from universities and local councils to professional bodies, schools, science centres and industry. The 10 centres are autonomous organisations that work together as a network of peers at the national level. This arrangement enables local and regional needs to be met effectively while also delivering against national priorities in science education. Since the centres opened, the strength of the network has grown through sharing good practice and co-developing courses. Responsibility is also shared for marketing, communication and for quality assurance. Each SLC is situated in a venue that meets the aspirations of school science staff, with well-equipped laboratories, conference rooms and resource areas. The purpose-built National Science Learning Centre at the University of York compliments the work of the regional centres by offering residential courses, often over several days. The centres also use a range of satellite venues, including schools around their region, in order to reach as many participants as possible and reduce the barriers to engaging with CPD. SLCs offer professional development in all aspects of science education, from primary to post-16, and for teachers, lecturers, technicians and teaching assistants. Their remit is to support the delivery of exciting, relevant, cutting-edge science teaching to ensure that students are equipped with the knowledge and understanding they need, both as scientists and citizens of the future. Through attending courses, science educators are provided with the opportunity to renew and extend their teaching skills as they mix with, and learn from, colleagues who face similar challenges to their own. Everyday practicalities of teaching can make it hard just to keep up with scientific advances, let alone have the time and resources to translate these developments into lessons that meet curriculum and timetable demands. Working in partnership with industry leaders, research scientists and scientific organisations, from Nissan and GlaxoSmithKline, to the National Space Centre and the Science Museum, the centres can offer course participants access to outstanding practical scientific knowledge and experience. This industry and research expertise is matched with educational expertise, ensuring that the professional development is creative, intellectually stimulating and relevant, both in terms of contemporary science and the classroom environment. The professional development offered by the centres is as diverse as are the needs of the community they serve. The core programme of scheduled courses involve at least one day’s training at the centre/other venue, together with pre-course and post-course tasks (eg trialling activities or pedagogies in the classroom) and ongoing support via the web portal. The centres can also tailor-make CPD especially for individual schools or colleges, with bespoke courses run at a mutually agreeable time, a very cost-effective way of managing the CPD needs of a science department. Other CPD opportunities include conferences, coaching and mentoring, support for action research, online communities, access to resources and free equipment loans. The centres are more than just a location for training courses; they are rapidly becoming the focus for all science education activity in the UK.

Our achievements to date

In 2005-06, the regional SLC delivered 11,317 days of science continuing professional development across the UK and this figure will be exceeded for 06-07.  In its first year of operation, the National Science Learning Centre also met its targets, providing science educators with 3,220 days of CPD. Feedback from course participants has reported high levels of satisfaction with both their SLC experiences overall and the range, quality and appropriateness of the services available. The vast majority of educators who have attended a course describe positive impacts resulting from their SLC provision. These include becoming more confident in the classroom, learning about new areas of the science curriculum and exchanging ideas and good practice with course presenters and peers.

The future

The major investment made in SLCs has provided a significant resource for all those involved in science education. It has brought together people and organisations with an interest in inspiring more young people to engage with science. The network is hoping to capitalise on these new relationships in order to build on its capacity to deliver national CPD programmes and to find new ways of extending access to the network’s rich resources. Current network projects include a DfES contract to deliver the science strand of the National Teaching and Learning Change Programme, a project to improve standards in post-16 science, and a three-year partnership with the Royal Society of Chemistry that will support 2,700 non-specialists in developing subject knowledge and practical skills. Science learning centres are also working with the Association for Science Education and the Training and Development Agency for Schools to move towards better-defined frameworks for accreditation and for evaluating the impact of science CPD. They have also been piloting a partnership with the General Teaching Council for England to give teachers the opportunity to gain professional recognition for their learning through the GTC Teacher Learning Academy (TLA).

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‘The course gave me confidence I was doing the right things’

On a personal level, I always felt that I understood science. It is what I majored in on my BEd.  But professionally I have found it a hard topic to teach because pupils are often sceptical about the concepts. I also wanted to support other members of staff in their understanding and to help plan for progression through the year groups. So I opted for a subject knowledge course: ‘How to enliven QCA science at KS1 and KS2’.  This was day one of a series covering different areas of the primary science curriculum and focused on forces and friction. There were sessions on advancing the delegates’ own knowledge and understanding, as well as exploring ways of teaching forces and friction in a more engaging way. Two months after the course, I was out purchasing further resources and providing some practical training for other colleagues in a staff meeting. The course gave me confidence that I was doing the right things and gave me more ideas about where to seek for help.  I haven’t taught forces again since but I have been planning some lively activities for National Science and Engineering Week. I also plan to carry out a survey of my class, asking them both before and after NSEW, about their understanding and enjoyment of Forces in order to help judge the impact of the new strategies.

James, science coordinator, in a suburban primary, with responsibility for teaching Year 6

‘I now feel quite confident in dispensing chemicals for class use’

Prior to taking up my post as a lab technician, I was at home with young children, having left full-time education after taking Advanced GNVQ Science at a sixth-form college. I signed up for the SLC five-day programme of professional development for inexperienced technicians, spread over the course of a year. Day two of the series focused on chemistry and included sessions on the safe storage and use of chemicals, making up solutions, and basic equipment and techniques to support KS3 and some KS4 chemistry. The course was very hands-on, which suited me, as I prefer to learn by doing rather than writing. My action plan included feeding back what I had learned to colleagues in school and to practise the various techniques. Having done this, I now feel quite confident in dispensing chemicals for class use and in making up accurate solutions for KS4 and A-level practicals. 

Annette, school lab technician in mixed RC comprehensive

‘I feel much more confident about teaching the older pupils and they in turn seem to be more engaged in science’

I trained through the GTP when I was in my late 30s, after several years working in industry and after having children of my own. The school I currently work in has a small, well-equipped laboratory and a part-time lab technician but no other science teachers, although the headteacher is a science specialist. Most of the available Inset has focused on behavioural, legal or social issues; and so when I signed up for the SLC course, it was the first science Inset I had been able to attend. Entitled ‘Understanding how science works for the new GCSEs’, the course was commissioned by my local authority on behalf of its schools, so the cost was very much less than if we had booked direct with the SLC. It comprised pre-course tasks and a face-to-face day managed by the SLC, then post-course follow-up activities coordinated by the local authority science team. My headteacher and I had identified a particular problem with teaching complex conceptual KS4 ideas to some of our disaffected MLD boys. This made us keen to explore ways of engaging the students and enhancing their self-esteem and general attitude. For the pre-course task we went through the GCSE specification together and highlighted the areas that had caused difficulty during the first term and reflected on the possible reasons for this. As a result of having done this thinking beforehand, I really felt able to approach the course in a very focused way.  My action plan listed several websites to follow up and three specific classroom activities I wanted to try, together with some more general guidelines that I felt could be applied to all my teaching of Years 9 to 11. I consulted all the websites over the holiday period and had signed up to receive regular newsletters. By week three of the new term I had implemented all of the general teaching and learning strategies (to simplify activities, encourage discussion, and incorporate kinaesthetic approaches such as role play). I feel much more confident about teaching the older pupils and they in turn seemed to be more engaged in science and to be enjoying the lessons more. 

Amanda is in charge of science and maths at a special school for pupils with moderate learning difficulties

‘I really wanted to develop my confidence in how to teach the basic principles of physics in a fun and engaging way’

I had always felt that I was less successful when teaching physics topics than I was at teaching biology. I don’t tend to enjoy these lessons so much and I suspect my pupils feel the same. The whole department used a school Inset day to attend ‘Physics for the non-specialist’, a subject knowledge course based on a set of five CD-Roms produced by the Institute of Physics and aimed at supporting non-physicists teaching at KS3.  I really wanted to develop my confidence in how to teach the basic principles of physics in a fun and engaging way in order to improve pupils’ enjoyment and understanding. So my action plan included some quite challenging personal targets on increasing my own knowledge and understanding, together with specific lesson planning strategies, such as increasing the use of practicals and demos and using structured free body diagrams to teach forces. More than two months after the course, I feel I am making progress. I have spent some time looking at the video clips in order to identify and begin to address my own misconceptions in physics. In turn, this was allowing me to elicit some pupil misconceptions and to explore these with more confidence. It helped enormously that the whole department had attended the course so everyone was much more open about discussing the physics lessons and planning for the use of more practical work. But I still have a long way to go however before I can teach physics as well as I teach biology.

Sidney, biology teacher, semi- rural secondary school with science specialist status

‘The course was really valuable and since returning to school, I have implemented everything listed on my action plan’

I work part-time as the science coordinator of a small village primary school, where I was appointed in response to a recent Ofsted report citing science as an area for improvement. Instead of having direct class responsibility, I have a timetable that is spread over all year groups, supporting the full-time staff in their science teaching. I decided to do a one-day SLC pedagogy course entitled: ‘Smart science – activating personal capabilities and thinking skills’. This was supported by a resource book and CD-Rom and explored a range of strategies for developing pupils’ group work, communication skills and thinking skills, all in the context of science teaching and learning. The course was really valuable, and since returning to school, I have implemented everything listed on my action plan. The resources have been loaded on all the interactive whiteboards (the school has one in every classroom) and I have provided a half-day Inset course to all staff on their use. And because of my peripatetic role within the school, I’ve been able to ensure that the approaches have been used with all pupils. It is impossible to be certain whether the teachers would have used them without my intervention, but I feel now that teachers understand the value and that they would continue to use them whether I was present or not. I reckon the generic games have proved most useful, because they are applicable to so many situations and subject areas. The main benefit as far as science is concerned is that teachers have been able to see that science can be taught through group work and games rather than in a didactic teacher-centred way.  When I asked one group of Year 6 pupils about her experience of the new strategies, she said of one of the games: ‘It’s fun for everyone as it doesn’t matter if you get it right or not, so you’re not scared to try.’

Margaret, science coordinator at an RC Primary School

Examples of different SLC professional development programmes

Leading science in the primary school

‘Leading science in the primary school’ was developed by Rosemary Feasey, a leading primary science educator. Working initially with Science Learning Centre Yorkshire and Humber, Rosemary developed a programme for primary science subject leaders. Courses are tailored to individual needs by surveying their priorities for development at the beginning of each course and then working through particular issues and concerns in a pragmatic way. Teachers carry out follow-up work back in schools, supported through the web portal.

Learning skills for science

‘Learning skills for science’ is a two-day course on including explicit teaching of skills in lessons for the new GCSE specifications. It uses the ‘Learning skills for science’ programme developed by the Weizmann Institute in Israel and adapted to the UK curriculum by Kings College, London, with support from the Gatsby Science Enhancement Programme. Science Learning Centre London has provided train-the-trainer events for other SLCs and for local authority consultants.

Inspiring an interest in science

Big Screen Science was a national programme led by First Light in collaboration with the Science Learning Centre North West and funded by the Film Council, the Wellcome Trust and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). Teachers participated in a rich programme of professional development, including subject updates on biomedical science and film making in order to support their students in putting together a proposal for a short film on a biomedical topic. Teachers from participating schools reported that their pupils became more engaged with science and their schoolwork generally. Abraham Moss High School was selected to create a short film working with a practising scientist and professional filmmaker. At this school, the winning team have markedly improved their confidence, aspiration and interest in science. The film is included in a teachers’ resource pack available from Science Learning Centre North West.

RCUK contemporary science courses

Research Councils UK (RCUK) has worked with the Network of Science Learning Centres to develop, pilot and roll out a number of contemporary science courses, designed to deal with areas of contemporary science that might be relevant to secondary school science teachers both in terms of refreshing and updating their own subject knowledge and the changing school curriculum. The areas included climate change, particle physics, astrophysics and nanotechnology. An independent evaluation indicated that the high take-up of the pilot courses was attributed, at least in part, to the direct links made with the How Science Works section of the new curriculum. The combination of delivery by teachers and research scientists was very successful, enabling centres to draw on a wide variety of expertise and knowledge.