6 November 2023

Primary schools are dramatically underestimating our children

By Abbie MacGregor

Education is set to be a major dividing line at the next election, with Labour painting a Dickensian picture of underfunded state schools filled with starving children and rickety desks, and the Conservatives seeking to reform A levels.

Both sides are missing the point. The biggest problem with our schools isn’t funding or exams, but an obsession with the latter years of education. As a former primary school teacher who’s now researching a PHD in neuroscience, I’ve seen first hand how little sense this approach makes. The ‘critical period’ of brain development, where neuroplasticity is at its highest, is between birth and eight years old. Children will spend half of that period in primary school. The rapidly-created neural pathways developed in this time provide the entire underpinning for the functionality of our brains over the course of not just our education, but our entire lives. There is no greater testament to the significance of the early years than the fact it is possible to determine the attainment of a 15-year-old from their ability at age five. Yet this body of evidence is ignored by policy makers – with primary schools receiving half the funding lavished on those for older children.

Nowhere is the disconnect between desired outcomes and current policy clearer than when it comes to science education. Last week, the Prime Minister spoke to Elon Musk about his desire to see ‘science and technology hubs’, and back in March, published a government plan to ‘cement the UK’s place as a global science and technology superpower by 2030‘. But as with so many political endeavours, this is an attempt to treat a symptom rather than a cause. Big changes are an accumulation of smaller changes over a sustained period of time, and investments in science at the top level will not bear fruit without attention being paid to science education from the very beginning. 

Our current science curriculum is built on theories that are nearly a hundred years out of date. It was Jean Piaget who theorised in 1936 that concrete thinking (the branch of cognitive operation that deals with physically present ideas) and abstract thinking (the engagement and understanding of unpalpable concepts) occur at two separate, chronological stages, and that children are incapable of thinking abstractly until the age of around 11 or 12. This proves intrinsically difficult for the study of science as many basic concepts, like atoms, energy and force, are entirely abstract. The result is that our early years science curriculum is vague, disconnected, and frankly, nonsensical. Children in Year 1 (ages 5-6) are required to learn the properties of materials, but the reason why water is a liquid, and wood is a hard solid, cannot be explained adequately without explaining the arrangement of atoms. 

Now, studies are indicating that abstract and concrete thinking actually develop in tandem, and that when children appear to not understand abstract concepts, it may be less to do with cognitive ability and rather, a lack of exposure them. Research has found that three-year-old Chinese children are better at relational, abstract tasks than their US counterparts, whose early years education is overwhelmingly focused on object-based solutions. This suggests that our capacity to learn in different ways is not rigidly pre-determined, but context-based. If we provide children with an engaging and challenging curriculum from an early age, they do have the cognitive capacity to absorb it. 

Naturally, this doesn’t mean we should launch into lecture-style monologues on the gravitational constant for reception-aged children, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to teach them challenging concepts. We don’t condemn children as illiterate because they can’t read War and Peace from the offset. 

One of my most popular lessons as a primary school science teacher was the ‘flame test’, where I showed Year 1 children how different elements could make a flame change colour. Experiments like these tend not to feature on early years curriculums, as it’s assumed young children won’t understand the relationship between cause and effect. But in my experience, none of these children have forgotten what an element is, because none of them ever forgot that experiment.

Likewise, we are too coy about teaching children competing theories, preferring to regurgitate knowledge, giving the impression that scientific questions are ‘settled’. There is also a marked lack of science homework given to primary school children, an arena nearly exclusively dominated by English and Maths. In primary school, science stays in the classroom – it doesn’t get into gardens, or the kitchen, or in the night sky, where it all happens. 

The evidence is clear, our education system is consistently underestimating children’s ability. Unless we embed science in the curriculum from the very start of school, we’ll never achieve our ambition to be a science superpower.

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Abbie MacGregor is a communications professional and a former teacher in independent and state schools.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.