New assessment framework could stop primary school science falling behind English and maths

03 October 2012

Science education in primary schools is at risk of being given less teaching time than the other core subjects of maths and English. This is due to the lack of a comprehensive system of assessment to track performance at pupil, school and national level, according to a working group of specialists in primary science education.

The group has published its proposals for a new assessment framework in primary school science. The framework details how pupils’ attainment should be collected, recorded and published. It is intended to fill the vacuum in primary school science assessment left by the abolition of national testing for Year 6 pupils (11 year olds) in 2010 (2004 in Wales).

The working group was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and its proposals are supported by the Association for Science Education (ASE).

The group argues that the assessment framework could potentially be extended to other subjects and that the government should include consideration of the proposals as part of its current review of the National Curriculum.

The proposed assessment framework for primary school science

The proposed assessment framework is based on the principles that assessment should ultimately serve to improve pupils’ learning and that it should reflect the full range of learning objectives of primary school science education.

Ongoing assessment by teachers (formative assessment or ‘assessment for learning’) is at the heart of the framework. It is proposed that teachers collect information based on their assessment of pupils as part of their regular work, and use this to provide reports for parents and the next teacher. This information would also be used to form summative assessments of achievement at the end of each key stage.

Individual pupil records would then be aggregated for each class and for the school as a whole. Schools would use these data internally to track the progress of groups of pupils. Information about the proportion of Year 6 pupils achieving learning objectives would bereported to parents and governors and published on the school website. However, school data would not be collected nationally.

The working group acknowledges the importance of tracking performance at a national level, and proposes that this be done by regular testing of random samples of Year 6 pupils. These tests would use several different sets of test items from a bank in order to employ the maximum number of items while minimising the impact of the testing.

Status of science in primary schools

The working group argues the new assessment framework is necessary because the termination of national testing in science at the end of Key Stage 2 has led to teaching time and attention being transferred from science to the other core subjects of mathematics and English, where high stakes testing remains.

Professor Wynne Harlen OBE who chaired the working group said:

“We are not arguing for the reinstatement of national testing in primary science, but for the introduction of an assessment framework that meets the needs of individual pupils and schools while also enabling performance to be tracked at a national level. We believe our proposals, which are based on formative assessment and moderated summative assessment by teachers, will do that.”

Annette Smith, Chief Executive of the Association for Science Association (ASE) said:

“The proposed framework enables teachers to assess whether pupils are making progress in their ability to ‘work scientifically’, which is something that cannot be assessed by external written tests alone. Consequently we hope it will provide a more accurate picture of performance in science for this age group.

“This work is crucial to the position of science in primary schools and the Association for Science Education is committed to ensuring that it is progressed into practice from this very encouraging beginning.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation said:

“We believe the proposed framework offers a more considered and effective approach to science assessment in the primary curriculum, and with the review of the National Curriculum underway, it is the right time for the government to review the assessment of science in primary schools.”

Support from stakeholders

The assessment framework received enthusiastic support when presented to a wider group of stakeholders at a seminar held at the Nuffield Foundation on 18 September. These included representatives from learned societies, professional bodies, providers of teacher professional development, teaching associations and education research and policy organisations. Issues relating to implementation of the framework were discussed and the working group now plans to undertake further engagement with stakeholders and to pilot the ideas with teachers.  


Contact: Frances Bright, Nuffield Foundation on (0)20 7681 9586 or

Notes to editors

1. The assessment framework was agreed by the working group at a seminar held at the Nuffield Foundation on 7/8 June 2012. It was given further consideration by a wider group of stakeholders at a second seminar held at the Nuffield Foundation on 18 September 2012. The framework, Developing policy, principles and practice in primary school science assessment, is published by the Nuffield Foundation. Both the framework report and the report from the 18 September seminar are available to download from:

2. Members of the working group are:

Professor Wynne Harlen OBE (Chair), past president of the Association for Science Education (ASE); member of SCORE (Science Community Representing Education) Primary Committee; Primary School Quality Mark (PSQM) advisory group; and Wellcome Primary Science Specialist (PSS) programme external advisory group

Professor Derek Bell, Director, Campanula Consulting; College of Teachers; former CEO of ASE; former Head of Education at the Wellcome Trust; member of advisory board for PSQM

Marianne Cutler, ASE Director of Curriculum Innovation; member of SCORE

Anne Goldsworthy, Consultant; former Chair ASE Primary Committee; member of SCORE Primary Committee

Dr Angela Hall, Director of Science Education, Nuffield Foundation

Dr Christine Harrison, Co-Director of Assessment for Learning and Senior Lecturer in Science Education, King’s College London; former member of ASE Council

Sally Howard, Senior Teaching Fellow, Primary Science, University of Warwick; member of ASE Council and Assembly; ASE Trustee; Teach First Primary Programme lead West Midlands

Brenda Keogh, Millgate House Education; member of ASE Primary Committee, SCORE Primary Committee, and PSQM advisory group

Liz Lawrence, Barking and Dagenham Local Authority Adviser; ASE Chair-elect

Stuart Naylor, Millgate House Education; member of ASE Council

Professor Michael Reiss, Pro-Director: Research and Development and Professor of Science Education, Institute of Education, University of London

Professor Dudley Shallcross, University of Bristol; Director of the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust

Jane Turner, Leader, PSQM award programme; Associate Director, Science Learning Centre East of England; member of ASE Primary Committee and ASE Assembly; Lead Science Curriculum Expert DfE Standards and Testing Agency