HMCI Commentary: Science and Foreign Languages ​​in Primary School



In his final comment, Sir Michael Wilshaw argues that the emphasis in recent years on English and Maths at Key Stage 2, while absolutely essential, should not come at the expense of other important subjects. He believes that compulsory subjects such as science and modern languages ​​have become the “poor relatives” of the primary school curriculum. However, these subjects, when taught well, can strengthen literacy and numeracy skills and raise levels in English and math. Evidence from recent Ofsted inspections and feedback from teachers, parents and pupils has highlighted a number of common concerns about the provision of both science and foreign languages ​​at Key Stage 2. Sir Michael says more emphasis needs to be placed on these topics to ensure that children coming out of primary school are better prepared for the more rigorous academic challenges they will face in secondary school.

Last autumn, in the first of my monthly commentary series, I spoke of the good performance of English primary schools and the steady increase in the number of pupils doing well on national curriculum tests at the end of the Milestone 2. I noticed that more than 60,000 children aged 11 more left primary school in 2015 with a good command of English and mathematics than just 3 years ago. I also said these improved test results were backed up by Ofsted’s own inspection results. Our latest statistics show that 87% of primary schools were rated as good or exceptional during their last inspection.

There is no doubt that the main factor in this success has been the focus on improving the basic knowledge and skills of primary school students in reading, writing and numeracy. However, a number of recent studies have suggested that this focus on the so-called ‘3Rs’ has pushed other compulsory subjects, including modern foreign languages ​​and science, to the fringes of the curriculum in many primary schools. (See Primary science: is there something missing? – recommendations for reviving primary science and Language Trends 2015/16: the state of language learning in primary and secondary schools in England.)

This is of concern as the government has said it wants the vast majority of pupils who started secondary school last September to take the full English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects, including science and a foreign language, when they come for their GCSE. exams in 2020. This desire to raise the academic success of our young people is a laudable but undoubtedly very ambitious ambition.

In 2015, less than half of all pupils studied a foreign language at GCSE and, although science is a core subject which should be studied by all pupils up to the age of 16, only 74% of pupils took it at GCSE level to qualify for the EBacc. It seems clear that if the government’s ambition is to be met, primary schools will need to lay the groundwork in these subjects before their students study them in secondary school.

In this spirit, Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) reviewed the quality and extent of science and foreign language provision in primary schools inspected over the past two terms. Evidence was drawn from 340 routine inspections (234 science-based and 106 foreign language-based). In addition, we considered the views of hundreds of parents, teachers and students.

HMI found that the majority of primary school students enjoy studying science and having the opportunity to learn a foreign language. However, the inspectors also found weaknesses in the provision of these two subjects. In particular, in too many schools, they found:

  • a lack of time allocated to the study of science and foreign languages
  • a lack of pedagogical expertise, particularly in foreign languages
  • poor working arrangements with partner secondary schools that failed to ensure effective transition and progression

Lack of time allocated to studying science and foreign languages

In about two-thirds of the primary schools visited by HMI, students spend less than an hour a week learning a foreign language. Many headteachers and teachers told inspectors that the time available to devote to this subject was often seriously limited and that their school struggled to fit foreign language lessons into an already busy curriculum.

Some of the parents we interviewed share this view. One commented, “Due to the sporadic lessons, there doesn’t seem to be much content and my son never feels like he’s progressing. Another commented that the study of foreign languages ​​in their child’s primary school “receives only token attention”.

While the vast majority of schools devoted 4 or more hours each week to teaching English and mathematics, none devoted a similar amount of time to teaching science, the third major subject in the primary curriculum. About two-thirds reported spending between 1 and 2 hours a week teaching science. However, for about a fifth of the schools, less than an hour was spent learning the subject. In one case, students said they couldn’t remember the last time they had a science lesson.

Lack of pedagogical expertise, especially in foreign languages

The generation of teachers entering the profession in recent years were not, for the most part, obliged to study a foreign language at GCSE. This has resulted in a shortage of language specialists at primary school level which can only be addressed by significant investment in the professional development of staff. Slightly less than half of the teachers who responded to the HMI questionnaire said they lacked confidence in their ability to teach a foreign language to their students.

Some of the schools we inspected employed a traveling language teacher to compensate for the lack of specialist knowledge in the staff room, although this type of support was not always available.

Inspectors found that teachers’ lack of confidence and subject knowledge was less of a problem in science than in foreign languages, with the majority of primary school teachers having studied the subject at least up to GCSE. However, HMI found that the quality of science teaching varied and that there was a link between teachers’ subject knowledge and how well students developed their science skills.

Poor working arrangements with partner high schools failed to ensure effective transition and progression

As our Milestone 3: Lost Years? pointed out last year, the transition between key stages 2 and 3 is too often badly managed. She has found that teaching in the first three years of secondary education often fails to build on the skills and knowledge that students have acquired at primary level.

HMI found that this lack of effective multi-phase work was a concern in about half of the schools inspected with regard to foreign language learning. As a result, inspectors were told that when children started secondary school, many either repeated what they had learned in primary school or found themselves studying a new language.

A parent commented:

My son learned French at elementary age, but switched to Spanish in high school, making French almost a waste of time. Schools are within a mile of each other! I wish the local schools would communicate better so that the language they learned in elementary school could carry over into high school.

For science, inspectors found that in just over half of the primary schools inspected, pupils were not well prepared for the rigors of Key Stage 3. Schools need to work more effectively together across the stages to ensuring that students transition smoothly from primary to secondary school, building on and rapidly expanding the knowledge and understanding of the scientific method needed to study science successfully.

Not an “either/or” situation

Inspectors have found that the best primary schools are able to provide effective instruction in science, foreign languages ​​and all other subjects, without compromising student progress in literacy and numeracy. This should not be an “either/or” situation. The best primary schools recognize that providing excellent instruction in subjects such as foreign languages ​​and science promotes good literacy and numeracy skills. This complements, rather than detracts from, the emphasis on English and math.

In my years of experience as a school leader, I have often found that good language and science teachers are among the best at interacting with children and instilling in them a constant interest and curiosity in the topic. If children are “disconnected” by poor and undemanding lessons, this is likely to have an impact on the future uptake of these subjects. We must therefore ensure that primary school students are inspired by effective science and foreign language teaching, delivered by properly trained and qualified staff, and that students’ inquisitive minds and natural curiosity are nurtured.

It is fair to say that in recent years Ofsted primary school inspections have prioritized the quality of provision in English and maths. In my opinion, this has helped improve the performance and standards I referred to at the start of this review.

However, the evidence from this recent survey has convinced me that we need to put as much emphasis on other subjects as we do on English and maths. Accordingly, I reminded inspectors that they should always pay attention to the subjects of the extended primary curriculum, including science and foreign languages, as indicated in the inspection manual.

We must ensure that primary schools effectively prepare students for the more rigorous academic challenges they will now face when they reach secondary school.


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