The Nuffield Science Teaching Project

The Science Teaching Project began in 1962 under the leadership of the Foundation's Director Leslie Farrer-Brown. It sought to modernise science education for all 5- to 18-year-olds. It began with O level courses in biology, chemistry and physics, followed by mathematics and junior science courses for 5- to 13-year-olds, a science course for teaching in secondary modern and comprehensive schools, and a suite of advanced level science courses. It was the first large-scale attempt to reform both teaching approaches and content in school mathematics and science.

There was no one Nuffield style: the teams of biologists, chemists and physicists worked largely independently and approached the challenge rather differently. 

What the projects had in common was a Nuffield approach to finding the best person for the job and then giving them resources to build a team to develop materials and try them out in schools. They also shared a commitment to teaching for understanding through hands-on practical work in the context of modern science. 

High level consultative committees added authority to the projects and made strong links with the professional world of science. 

Nuffield Chemistry in the 1970s

Investigative, practical science

The O-level courses were characterised by their reliance on practical work carried out by students and the spirit of inquiry that infused the teaching.

One consequence was that a great deal of effort was invested in developing new practical activities and the associated apparatus. Much of the equipment developed for the courses is still in use in schools today.

The guidance about practical work in the guides for teachers was exceptionally detailed and unusually well illustrated. Much of this work still has value today as shown by the Practical Physics, Practical Chemistry, and Practical Biology websites.  

The publications unit

The Nuffield Foundation took the decision to manage the projects in-house and set up the Nuffield Science Teaching Project. Nuffield had a publications unit which was responsible for the design and editorial aspects of publications, and set high standards. 

The publishing partner at this stage marketed and distributed the books which were edited, illustrated and designed by Nuffield. The long-term consequence for Nuffield of this method of working was an increasing focus on publications. 

The publications unit also developed the use of short 8-mm film clips played through clunky loop projectors in an attempt to realise on screen the kinds of animation, visualisation and contexualisation of science that can be achieved successfully today with the help of new multimedia technologies.

Assessment

New approaches to assessment were an essential feature of the new projects. They were developed in partnership with three of the leading examining boards. At that time the examining teams took up the challenge of finding ways to examine in the spirit of the new courses. 

The London Board (as it then was) set up an R & D unit to develop new approaches to examining for the new chemistry course many of which are still in use today.

Professional development

Nuffield projects also pioneered new styles of hands-on professional development supported by the Inspectorate and LEA advisers. 

The Nuffield brand

The O-level projects established such a strong brand that even today many people associate ‘Nuffield Science’ with their approach. About 20% of schools took up the courses. This was encouraged by LEAs that offered new laboratories and grants for equipment to those that did so. 

Supporting students as well as teachers

The Biology, Chemistry and Physics courses were revised in the 1970s, and this time there were textbooks for Physics and Chemistry as well as Biology. This was a major change in Nuffield thinking in response to research which revealed widespread demand for pupils’ books. As before, the courses covered the age range 11 to 16, split into two-year introductory courses followed by three years of preparation for O-level examinations.

Long-term influence

The Nuffield O-level science courses were developed in academic grammar and independent schools and were intended for the top 25% of the student ability range. The developers introduced concepts at O-level which are now seen as being much more appropriate for post-16 courses. The courses were adapted in many areas of Britain to create CSE courses which gave access to the Nuffield approach to a wider range of students.

The books were widely translated including editions in Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German, Turkish and Japanese.  Nuffield project team members and teachers were involved in introducing the teaching approaches in countries including Malaysia.

The O-level courses ran for over 20 years until the coming of the National Curriculum, GCSEs, and Nuffield Co-ordinated Sciences.