Teachers urge Ministry of Education not to neglect science in bid to improve declining maths scores

Science educators raise concerns while the Ministry of Education focuses on maths results
Science educators raise concerns while the Ministry of Education focuses on maths results Photo credit: Getty Images.

Hamish Cardwell for RNZ

Teachers are warning not to neglect science in the rush to halt the decline in students' maths scores. 

The Ministry of Education (MoE) is convening experts, asked the Royal Society to investigate, and has spent $40 million on teacher training to improve maths results.

But science marks are also dropping and there are warnings of dire consequences if something is not done.

Maths and science scores have been falling for years - in December 13 year olds recorded their worst-ever results in a major international maths and science test.

Just 20 percent of primary and intermediate aged children are reaching expectations in science - with that subject the worst of any in the curriculum for Year 8s.

Science educator House of Science chief executive Chris Duggan said there were too few specialist primary school science teachers, and not enough resources.

An Education Review Office report showed 73 percent of primary schools did not have an effective science programme, she said.

"Walk into most primary schools in the country and ask to see their science resources and there'll be one little bookshelf dedicated to science stuff which will usually consist of a box of random magnets, some electronic stuff and maybe some broken glassware.

"And nobody uses it because they don't know what to do with it."

If nothing was done the cost to society would be "astronomical", harming people's ability to distinguish facts from lies and fuelling irrational beliefs such as the anti-vax movement, Duggan said.

"With the power of social media now it's so easy for people to put semi-truths or false truths out there.

"And if we have lost the ability to be a little bit cynical and to question things then we're in deep trouble."

Duggan said she did not know why the MoE was not doing more to stop the decline.

Association of Primary Science Educators national coordinator Sandy Jackson said she would love to see science getting the attention and resources now going into maths.

Teachers were being asked to do too much in too little time, and science got pushed to the side by teachers who were not confident they knew what they were supposed to be teaching, Jackson said.

"Not being too prescriptive but at least giving some guidance to teachers to know where they're actually trying to take the children to: What are they aiming for?

"That's not there."

Principals' Federation president Perry Rush said while schools did not want to lose the ability to set their science programmes, the MoE needed to lay out more clearly what was expected in the curriculum.

"The job for the ministry is to be working with the profession, to bring a conversation to how we build clear understandings about what science is, and what learning is most important in the science curriculum," Rush said.

A crisis was approaching and the MoE needed to act fast, he said.

"It's absolutely appropriate that we draw a line in the sand and say 'we must move quickly now and we must take this very seriously'.

"We need to be an economy that is competitive in the world."

School science educator Dr Michelle Dickinson of Nanogirl Labs said the international science rankings did not tell the whole story.

"When we hold ourselves to these international standards it is really important to look at what they're assessing, and whether that's what we value.

"And I'm not sure we value regurgitation and rote learning. I think we value problem solving and acquired local knowledge and using that in the real world."

The MoE said in a statement it provided quality online resources and support to help schools teach science.

It said that in 2019 it gave teachers a resource to help them make sure individual schools science programmes tied in with the national curriculum.

The MoE said it had spent about $30m in the past four years on teacher training in science.