The overall quality of science teaching and learning raised concerns. Only three percent of the 100 schools had science programmes that were considered to be highly effective. A further quarter were identified as generally effective. Less than two thirds of the schools were considered partially effective and just over a tenth not effective.

Figure 1: Overall Quality of Schools’ Science Programmes

This diagram shows the overall quality of the 100 schools' science programmes. Thirteen schools had not effective science programmes, 60 schools had partially effective science programmes, 24 schools had generally effective science programmes and 3 had highly effective science programmes.

Common features found across the 27 schools with generally and highly effective science programmes were:

  • school leaders who actively promoted science teaching and learning, and worked in partnership with a curriculum leader with a passion for science
  • support provided for staff to raise their confidence and competence in science teaching through ongoing professional learning and development opportunities
  • clear expectations and guidelines for teacher planning with opportunities for students to experience all curriculum strands within an agreed time frame including a regular focus on the Nature of Science strand, particularly on the investigative process and the language of science
  • flexible and responsive programmes clearly connected to students’ interests and daily lives
  • science-specific lessons, directly related to an identified science concept
  • hands-on, cooperative learning activities that engaged students with teachers acting as facilitators as students influenced the direction of their own learning
  • the successful integration of science with literacy and mathematics learning, and with an inquiry learning approach
  • clearly defined, expected learning outcomes outlined for students, with progress assessed through science-appropriate assessment tools
  • regular evaluation of science programmes through well-developed school self review.

In schools where science teaching and learning was not effective or partially effective:

  • there was a lack of science leadership
  • science was accorded a low priority compared with other curriculum areas, particularly literacy and numeracy
  • the science curriculum had not been reviewed to match the The New Zealand Curriculum requirements
  • teachers were not provided with clear expectations and guidelines for science teaching and learning
  • quality assurance processes to monitor the implementation of science programmes were not evident
  • science programmes lacked coherence and continuity
  • students experienced knowledge based programmes rather than interactive, investigative approaches, and did not have opportunities to learn concepts from the Nature of Science strand
  • the integrity of science learning was lost in integrated learning units
  • teachers did not have useful processes for assessing students’ achievement and progress
  • science was not part of the school’s self-review processes
  • there was no budget or time allocation for science, resulting in limited resources or time for hands-on student learning activities
  • teachers did not receive professional learning opportunities to develop their science knowledge and skills.

These findings are developed and discussed in more detail under the headings of leading science to support student outcomes; planning high quality science education to support learning teaching and learning; and assessment and self review of teaching and learning in science.

Leading science to support student outcomes

High quality science teaching depends on effective school leadership. Such leadership provides:

  • clear expectations and/or goals for science learning
  • access to useful professional learning development for staff in this curriculum area and feedback on the quality of their teaching
  • appropriate resourcing for a science programme
  • a suitable lead teacher who helps staff build their confidence and provide good quality science teaching.

In schools where effective science leadership was evident students received high quality learning opportunities in science.

Effective leadership

In schools with effective or generally effective programmes for Years 5 to 8 students, the principal actively promoted science teaching and learning. They set clear expectations for curriculum design and programme planning, teaching and review. Senior leaders closely monitored curriculum contexts and time allocated to science. Senior leaders who placed a high priority on science learning ensured that teachers who were less confident with science teaching did not avoid this area. They ensured that they maintained its integrity when implementing an inquiry-based approach to the curriculum. All senior leaders in these schools showed a good knowledge of what was being taught, and of the agreed school-wide approaches to science learning.

These schools had an appropriate, specified science budget and good resources for science teaching and learning. Materials for practical activities that supported the school’s plan for science contexts were available, well organised and easily accessible. Staff and students continually added to them to extend the opportunities for future learning.

Some leaders used science expertise from the school community, including parents and people from local iwi, and nearby secondary schools. Such resource people provided practical experience that linked to the teaching programme. They participated in lessons and presented science as a career option for students. Effective science leaders encouraged the use of community facilities such as museums, wildlife and marine reserves, and universities.

Principals in these schools identified and encouraged an appropriate leader of science teaching and learning. These lead teachers had a strong interest in science and proactively mentored and supported other staff. They shared new ideas and research at regular staff meetings, and provided professional readings. The science leader modelled lessons for teachers. While some had an academic background in science, the key quality of science leaders was the interest and passion they brought to their role. In some cases the principal and/or lead teacher had undertaken further individual professional learning development to better lead science teaching and learning.

The lead teacher and principal worked in partnership to build staff confidence through developing teachers’ knowledge and skills. Teachers were sometimes surveyed to ascertain their competence and confidence in teaching science. In addition to support from senior leaders, staff were given opportunities for professional learning development with external providers through board-funded, in-school development sessions.

Senior staff gave teachers feedback about their science teaching. In those schools where science was identified as a priority, improved science teaching was sometimes considered as part of the appraisal cycle. Leadership teams fostered the notion that you don’t have to be a science expert, rather you need to be a learner along with the students. Teachers had permission to be creative and were willing to ‘give things a go’. They gained confidence through collegial support.

Principals expected ongoing improvement by requiring science to be part of all levels of well developed school self review. Teachers evaluated their class science programmes and student achievement was reported to the board.

Ineffective science leadership

In the schools with partially or not effective science programmes for Years 5 to 8 students, the principal showed little or no interest in science or gave it much less priority than other curriculum areas. Sometimes senior leaders had little knowledge as to what extent science was included in classroom programmes. Some of these schools had no designated leadership for science and decisions about what, if any, science teaching and learning took place were made entirely by classroom teachers or teachers across a syndicate.

Some schools had a nominal lead teacher who lacked an understanding of science education. Lead teachers were not always clear on what their role entailed. Sometimes a notion of shared responsibility for science resulted in no leadership for this curriculum area.

Science leaders whose teaching responsibilities were in Years 1 to 3 sometimes lacked the understanding of appropriate pedagogy for senior students. Some schools had no staff member with academic qualifications in science. However, this was not necessarily a barrier to successful science leadership as seen earlier. On occasions the lead teacher was a part-time or provisionally registered teacher with the attendant challenges of such a position. However, in a few such cases the person’s enthusiasm, energy and willingness to be a co-learner with staff and students made the delegation successful.

Planning high quality science education to support learning

High quality planning for science includes a clear strategy for teaching the science curriculum objectives, with special emphasis on the Nature of Science strand. Planning guidelines outline how students will learn core scientific ideas, scientific process skills and investigate their own ideas through a range of engaging activities. Guidelines for assessment are also included with clear learning outcomes and suitable methods for assessing students’ scientific skills, processes and knowledge.

Judgements on the quality of planning were based on examining planning documents for all of the classrooms visited, observing teaching and learning, wall displays of student work, science fair exhibits, and on discussions with senior managers, teachers and students.

The quality of planning for science teaching and learning in the 100 schools involved in this evaluation generally mirrored the quality of science leadership. 

Good quality planning

The following describes the features of schools identified as having effective planning for the science programmes for Years 5 to 8.

Consultative planning

Clear expectations and guidelines for teacher planning were evident. Schools planned to cover all curriculum strands over a specified period of time, usually within two years, but sometimes less. In some schools, team leaders discussed and decided the strand and theme for the next term then the teaching teams discussed the activities and associated resourcing needed to implement the programme.

Early in the planning cycle teachers explored students’ prior knowledge, understanding and interests before developing learning activities. Units of work were planned using a common template that provided for a school-wide approach through identifying relevant key competencies, use of ICT, inquiry processes and the place of literacy and mathematics learning in the planned unit. Consequently, all staff and students were thoroughly consulted and contributed to curriculum design.

Investigative process

The Nature of Science strand received regular focus, particularly on the investigative process and the language of science. Teachers guided their students to value and use the investigative processes. They designed programmes that developed students understanding of trial and error as an aspect of science, developing an idea and then testing their theory. Teachers planned hands on/experimental activities, in carefully selected groups, to enable students to learn to value precision and accuracy. They were expected to use structured thinking processes and ICTs in the investigative process. Authentic science learning gave students well-defined opportunities to predict, experiment, make and test things, by following a scientific method to arrive at conclusions.

Engaging students

The school science overview had clear expectations for engaging students. They had opportunities to investigate, understand, explain and apply their learning to the world they lived in. Students were developing an understanding of scientific principles that impacted on their everyday lives. The more meaningful and relevant the context was to students’ interests, the more motivated they were. Provision was made for reinforcing concepts through a variety of real-life experiences and, where possible, the local area context was effectively used. Individual student’s interests were catered for through individual exploration.

Students were able to learn about science concepts beyond school by visiting science events at other schools and at museums and science centres. Planning included aspects to help students understand that science is highly valued by the community and provides possible future career options. One school curriculum document outlined how the science learning process, ‘should develop students’ sense of awe and wonder’ for the world around them. 

Integrated learning

Schools with good quality planning successfully integrated science within inquiry learning. The Nature of Science strand provided a framework for the learning. Lessons were science specific and directly related to an identified science concept rather than obscured by teaching that overly emphasised a wide range of different curriculum areas. Clear teaching and learning sequences led to well-defined science learning outcomes as students followed appropriate, scientific, investigative processes. A few schools enhanced their students’ science learning with successful connections to materials and food technology, and environmental learning.

Poor quality planning

In two-thirds of schools visited, planning did not provide a useful framework for science teaching and learning. Some of these schools had good quality planning in other learning areas.

Poor quality planning lacked coherence, without regard for the contexts students had already been taught or the programme gaps that might limit their access to the broad education they are entitled to. Programme decisions did not always provide assurance that students would be introduced to the knowledge and skills from across the science curriculum strands, and the overarching Nature of Science strand. Although there was some tracking of the science taught, it did not usually include the Nature of Science strand. On occasions a science focus tended to be once a year and limited to units related to the Living World or Planet Earth and Beyond.

Planning in less effective schools was frequently ad hoc with decisions made on a term-by-term basis about the next science ‘topic’ without understanding its context or incorporating real science processes in the teaching and learning. There was little evidence of awareness of the Nature of Science strand or its place in the curriculum. In fact this strand was often the least well taught and understood aspect of the science curriculum. 

In some schools teachers and students were not certain of which activities or lessons were part of their science programme. In these schools the Enviro-School programme was seen as the entire school science programme or there was confusion as to what constitutes the technology curriculum and what constitutes science 

Meaningful learning

Clear learning objectives and teaching points were absent from teaching plans. Activities planned may have been of interest to students, but were not directly related to developing science understanding and skills. Teachers were not provided with clear guidelines about effective science teaching. Some programmes were knowledge based where students researched information or were provided with facts to learn. Few planned interactive, thinking, talking and experimenting approaches to science were evident. Planning did not consider students’ interests or cultural background and knowledge.


In a few schools students did not have equitable access to science learning. In these schools students withdrawn to attend Gifted and Talented (GATE) programmes got more opportunities to participate in authentic science learning than other students. Such programmes provided more opportunities for students to follow their own interests in science.

Time allocation

ERO encountered the same difficulties determining the time spent on teaching science in a school during any one year as mentioned in Looking Ahead: Science Education for the Twenty-First Century. [15] Time allocated to science teaching and learning was usually not specified in planning and science was frequently incorporated into inquiry-learning units of work.

Schools’ focus on designing a curriculum that made certain students participated in the required learning of the science curriculum was highly variable. It ranged from all strands covered over one year, with the Nature of Science integrated into every topic, to teachers taking random discrete lessons, based on their own interests, whenever they could fit them in. Schools that gave science teaching some priority tended to plan objectives from all strands for over a two year period, with a science focus for four of the eight terms. It is worth noting that social studies was taught over all eight terms in some of these schools with minimal opportunities to learn science. Other variations included objectives from all strands included over four years, a whole school focus on science every three years with no science taught in intervening years, and a topic focus once a year.

Integration of mathematics, reading and writing into science planning

Some schools had difficulty balancing the need for a literacy and numeracy focus against teaching other curriculum areas such as science. There was little evidence of schools considering the National Standards in reading, writing and mathematics in their science programme planning.

About half the schools had made some attempt to integrate literacy and mathematics into science units. The extent, quality and usefulness of this integration, and its impact on science teaching and learning, were variable. At one end of the spectrum science became merely a vehicle or context for literacy and mathematics teaching with no real science investigation or learning evident.

Effective integration made the science learning central and provided students with the specialist tools necessary for suchlearning. Students require particular literacy and mathematics proficiencies to carry out science investigations. Teachers identified these proficiencies, ascertained students’ current knowledge and skills and then provided appropriate teaching, within the science context, to enable them to utilise these skills effectively.


Vocabulary development was the most frequently observed form of literacy integration to science programmes. Effective schools’ unit plans often identified specific science vocabulary that was relevant to an investigation. Strategies to introduce this vocabulary and develop students’ confidence using it correctly included visual prompts such as charts, diagrams and key-word cards. Teachers built up lists of verbs and adverbs with students that would be useful to write up experiments. They were persistent in requiring students to use appropriate scientific language consistently, as students could not understand what they were observing without suitable vocabulary. Where these practices were evident students used scientific language confidently. Where appropriate vocabulary was not used students did not always realise they were studying science.

Developing the writing skills required to report scientific investigations was a feature of programmes where literacy and science learning were integrated well. Recount, procedural, explanatory, and report writing skills were developed and used. It was clear that these were part of the scientific process and not literacy activities in disguise. At the other extreme, students spent a lot of time copying text from the white board or books.

Guided reading was part of a few science programmes. Students’ comprehension and information seeking skills were developed in a carefully sequenced way to help them understand suitable books or digital material. They were shown how to seek out key words or ideas. When this was not done well, considerable time was spent entirely on reading about science related things from books or online, rather than doing any hands-on investigation.

Science-related texts and other materials were sometimes used in reading programmes, outside of the allocated science time, to broaden and deepen students’ awareness of scientific concepts and to cater for students’ interests. This was most commonly seen with science material used in guided or shared reading. A few teachers used writing time to develop students’ science-specific writing skills and to get them to record aspects of their science investigations, or to stimulate creative writing within a science context.

Aspects of information literacy were often integrated into science. This was useful when it was focused on giving students the research skills required to seek out information from multiple sources to provide context and broaden their understanding of what they were finding in their investigations.


Integration of mathematics was less common. Teachers said the sequence in which mathematics concepts were taught did not always align well with opportunities for mathematics teaching in their science programmes. A few teachers were integrating aspects of measuring, designing tables and graphs, statistics, estimations and developing scales into their science planning, providing students with the necessary tools for their investigations. However, most teachers did not take advantage of the full range of opportunities available for integrating mathematics into their science programmes.

In most schools literacy or mathematics integration meant science was merely a context for learning in those curriculum areas. Sometimes there was no attempt at integrating any of the science curriculum objectives. The fact that students incidentally used literacy or mathematics skills in science learning was seen as evidence of integration rather than that these are the building blocks of all learning. Integration, when done inappropriately, was detrimental to an interactive approach to science. Integration was forced and the links made were inappropriate.

Inquiry learning

Much science teaching and learning was incorporated into an inquiry approach. In the hands of a confident and capable teacher, inquiry learning provided opportunities for students to develop valuable thinking and questioning skills for scientific investigation. However, in some schools the approach risked losing the integrity of science in the process. In the absence of strong and knowledgeable science leadership, science can be subsumed by the inquiry process.

Science was frequently merged in an integrated/inquiry curriculum model, incorporating inquiry learning with little experimental science. Sometimes students did not know they were learning science as this was not made explicit. The inquiry approach enabled teachers to tick off science as having been ‘done’.

High quality examples of successfully integrating science into inquiry-based teaching and learning were limited. Only a few schools maintained the integrity of science within inquiry-learning units of work.

Teaching and learning

High quality science teaching and learning requires teachers to be enthusiastic about teaching science, have sound pedagogical and subject knowledge and set high expectations for student achievement. Effective teachers of science use a wide range of teaching strategies that:

  • build on students’ existing knowledge and understanding
  • provide engaging, relevant practical learning activities
  • engage and motivate students so they enjoy science
  • maintain a challenging, but safe and inclusive learning environment
  • enable students to see science as relevant to their futures.

Science teaching was observed in Years 5 to 8 classrooms across half of the schools. In most of these schools science teaching in two or three classrooms was observed. The remainder of schools were not teaching science at the time of the ERO review. Judgements on the quality of teaching and learning were based on the classroom observations, planning, documentation, wall displays and science fair exhibits, and on discussions with senior managers, teachers and students.

There was considerable variability in the quality of science teaching and learning across schools. Even in the one school where there was sometimes a ‘champion’ [16]teacher of science, other teachers within the school were much less effective at teaching science.

Effective practice

Teachers in classrooms with effective science programmes were highly enthusiastic about teaching science. Many had sound pedagogical and subject knowledge and high expectations for student achievement in science.

Lessons were science specific and directly related to an identified science concept. Clear teaching and learning sequences resulted in well-defined, science learning outcomes. Teachers used pre-test information to adjust planning to better meet students’ needs and build on their existing knowledge and understanding. Learning outcomes were well defined. Appropriate forms of assessment were used to determine whether those outcomes had been achieved. Students were provided with easily understood success criteria and the learning sequence scaffolded their learning logically. Teachers provided unambiguous instructions on expectations for the lesson.

Teachers acted as facilitators as students influenced the direction of their own learning. They gave students useful ongoing feedback on their progress. Good teacher questioning encouraged independent thinking and reflection. Students could talk about their learning confidently and knew what they were trying to achieve. Teachers insisted on students using scientific language, and helped them develop core scientific ideas while also assisting them to investigate their own.

Students made predictions and were familiar with the investigative process, including fair testing. They used structured thinking processes in lessons and ICT (including ‘Skyping’ [17] in the classroom with local and overseas ‘experts’), where appropriate. Students’ predictions and descriptions of their observations included their own ideas. They blogged about their thinking, problems and their solutions.

Lessons were engaging. Students worked cooperatively in groups, moved around the classroom and participated enthusiastically in their investigations and discussions. They looked forward to doing science at intermediate or secondary school.

Programmes were flexible and responsive so students who were particularly interested could take a concept further through individual or group explorations. Participation in the school science fair was one vehicle to do this, particularly when the focus was on student thinking and work and not subject to parents being overly involved in completing the project. Many teachers developed links into tikanga and te reo Māori with Matariki [18] being a popular focus. Students were making connections between scientific knowledge and every day decisions and actions.

Limited effectiveness

In most classrooms however many of these effective practices were not evident. Often students commented on being re-taught work that they had already covered in previous years. They did not know they had been learning science as the science learning was not made explicit and there was confusion between whether they had been involved in science or technology.

Practical work in some classrooms was based on flawed investigative approaches and showed gaps in teachers’ scientific understanding. Some teachers provided stand‑alone lessons with activities that did not clearly link to the science curriculum. In other classrooms, students were not always involved in experimental work and were sometimes only spectators when their teacher demonstrated a practical activity. Some students’ comments indicated that teachers had difficulty in managing practical science sessions.

A key factor in the quality of science teaching and learning is the lack of confidence demonstrated by many teachers in teaching this curriculum area. This reflects a lack of knowledge and understanding of the science curriculum, and of what constitutes effective science teaching and learning. It is manifest in the fact that some teachers avoid teaching science as part of their classroom programme. When science is taught this lack of confidence leads to a more easily managed, teacher directed approach. Teachers find the certainty of teaching content knowledge is easier than facilitating students’ participation in an investigative processes where the outcome may be uncertain.

Assessment and self review of teaching and learning in science


The Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI) website [19] provides science assessment exemplars and matrices. These assist teachers to assess students’ progress in science learning, review class or school science programmes and provide achievement information for analysis and reporting to the board. ERO saw little evidence that teachers are making effective use of this resource.

Only a small number of the 100 schools used assessment effectively to provide feedback to students, to inform parents, the community and board, and help staff evaluate the effectiveness of teaching and learning. Schools with high quality science planning had clearly defined expected learning outcomes for students and used assessment to determine whether those outcomes had been achieved. Other schools had little useful data on student achievement in science.

Effective assessment

Teachers used a range of assessment practices, including diagnostic information, pre and post knowledge testing and well-designed practical tasks for students to demonstrate their learning. Students received feedback on their progress through a range of regular formative processes. Teachers used appropriate questions from NEMP studies as models for assessing students and identifying possible misunderstandings of science concepts.

Summative assessment was guided by progress indicators that reflected the Nature of Science strand. These indicators assessed students’ inquiry and problem solving skills. Teachers used national/local baseline matrices to help analyse individual student achievement in relation to the curriculum levels. In some schools teachers had established an assessment matrix using the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER), Assessment Resource Bank (ARB), exemplars and school developed assessments to identify students’ progress against expectations.

This information was then collated, analysed and used to inform professional discussions, planning and teaching. It was reported to the board, school community and parents. Data gathered and analysed from these assessments informed school self review.

Ineffective assessment

Other schools did not effectively use science assessment information for teaching and learning or self review. When they did assess science the information lacked a focus on what students should know and demonstrate, in part due to a lack of clear teaching and learning objectives in the planning. The process of making judgements about progress was not linked to success criteria that reflected science knowledge and skills, or benchmarked against national exemplars or the ARB. This information was generally not collated, analysed and reported to the board. Consequently, trustees were not well informed on the effectiveness of science programmes.

Teachers used formative assessments and anecdotal notes and/or some student self assessment. There was little reporting to parents on science achievement, or in some cases generalised ‘I can’ statements formed the basis of this reporting. While all these forms of assessment have their place, they do not provide teachers, parents and whānau with a summative picture of students’ achievement in science or the science teaching programme’s effectiveness.

In a small number of schools teachers did not assess students’ progress and achievement in science.

Self review

Self review of science programmes’ effectiveness was a low priority for most schools. Only two schools had highly effective self-review processes with a further eleven having generally effective processes.

Most schools had limited self review that focused on science. In some cases this was indicative of the low quality of self review in the school generally but in many others that had robust self-review processes in other curriculum areas, it reflected the low priority given to science education in the school. A lack of moderated science achievement information, or of school-wide achievement information in science, meant there was no sound basis for self review of science. At best there was some collation of information of the ‘above, achieved and below’ variety in individual classes. Most boards had little information about the quality of science teaching and the outcomes for students from the school’s science programmes.

Very few schools had good quality examples of systematic science self review. These schools had strong science leadership, where science was a priority and where students received good quality, science teaching. One useful strategy in primary and intermediate schools was informal consultation with the local high school, or former students, as to how well prepared they were for science learning at secondary school. This then led to modification of the programme. Useful models of self review observed by ERO follow.

Contributing primary school, urban, medium size, mid decile

At the end of each planned science unit all teachers did an extensive Plus/Minus/Interesting (PMI) type of review, which included student achievement information. Senior leaders collated these reviews into a school wide report. The information in this report was analysed and evaluated to develop recommendations for the ongoing improvement of the science programme.

The school had established an assessment matrix, using the ARB, exemplars and school developed assessments, to identify students’ progress against expectations. The senior leadership team had comprehensive information on the effectiveness of completed science units and student achievement against school expectations. They analysed data for cohorts and groups. The board received an overview of this information.

Contributing primary school, urban, large, high decile

The deputy principal and lead teacher for science conducted an extensive review of science in 2010. They talked with and surveyed staff, management, community, parents and students. The science leaders collated, analysed and shared these survey results with staff community and the board. They made recommendations that resulted in a totally different approach to the implementation of science in 2011.

Teaching teams and teachers regularly reviewed units of work and identified positive practices, which they continued and less successful practices, which they refined or discarded.

Full primary school, urban, medium size, high decile

At this school science was taught as part of integrated curriculum units with an emphasis on preserving the integrity of the subject. Individual teachers gathered specified assessment information in a range of subjects, including science. They used this to evaluate science achievement information and what it showed about teaching effectiveness, at syndicate meetings, and to inform changes for future planning of teaching and learning.

The achievement information was shared with the integrated curriculum leadership team. This team, which included a science leader, provided the board with a report on the quality of teaching and learning in integrated studies. The reports included recommendations for professional learning development, interventions, special teaching programmes or resourcing. The most detailed of these were for literacy and mathematics but the integrated curriculum reports gave useful information on science.

Science was also reviewed as part of the school’s overall curriculum development and review.

Intermediate and Years 7 to 13 schools

The wide range in effectiveness of practices was found across schools, including contributing and full primary, intermediate, composite and Years 7 to 13 secondary schools.

Students in intermediate schools often had access to specialist facilities such as a science laboratory. Intermediate schools were more likely to liaise directly with secondary schools about the nature and content of their science programme. In these schools science might be taught by a specialist, or the class teacher, or on occasions a combination of both. While the number of intermediate schools in this study was not large, there was no evidence that the quality of science teaching overall was higher in intermediates than in full primary schools.

Students in composite schools and Years 7 to 13 secondary schools had access to specialist facilities and resource people. There was potential to develop a seamless science curriculum across the school. Again schools varied in the extent to which they were taking advantage of these opportunities.