Expanding specialist science education to a wider range of primary school pupils should be considered, according to the first ever Scottish winner of the Royal Society of Biology (RSB) teacher of the year award.
Paul Downie, Faculty Head of Science at Hyndland Secondary in Glasgow, said such a change could help support primary staff as they work to deliver the broad range of learning required for P1-7 children. It comes after he received the 2021 RSB prize and follows his shortlisting against educators from Ark St Alban’s Academy, Birmingham, and Westcliff High School for Girls in Essex.
Praising him for his “exceptional” skill in “exploring and building on children’s prior understanding”, RSB judges said his approach was not just about helping pupils remember content but enabling them to learn through investigation, creativity and collaboration.
Mr Downie, who was recently seconded to support the development of the West OS online school, described the award as an “honour”. Stressing he is not the best teacher he knows, he added: “There are lots of strengths within Scottish education as a whole and within science education.” He pointed in particular to the success of West OS, which offers hundreds of recorded video lessons and is available free to every learner in Scotland.
But he also suggested there were ways in which the access that younger pupils have to science could be increased. He said: “How do you give primary children access to a science specialist?
“Primary teachers are the most incredibly skilled and widely talented people you’ll come across. They nurture and teach very young children, and have to tap into this incredible breadth of knowledge to cover a very broad curriculum.
“The question that is asked then is, can we find ways to better support them when it comes to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)? What are the different models that this could look like? What’s been tried and what works?
“The majority of secondary schools will already work closely with their cluster primary schools, and send science teachers along to teach in those primary schools, particularly at key transitional points.
“Our science department, for instance, regularly go out to local primary schools at certain times of the year to deliver science lessons to primary 6 and 7 as it helps those pupils get to know the staff they will meet when they move to secondary school. Could we, however, begin to build on this and do more? Could we expand into other year groups within primary? There is no reason why you couldn’t build on that model providing there was sufficient staffing available to accommodate the additional teaching time.”
RSB judges noted that Mr Downie had helped oversee a range of initiatives aimed at boosting participation in science.
He previously led students in an expedition to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, and co-ordinated seniors so they could work in local nurseries to provide STEM activities. “Don’t get me wrong, a lot of work has gone into this already across Glasgow, including some great work to develop Primary STEM Leaders so it isn’t a new idea, it is ongoing,” he told The Herald.
Mr Downie said learning had been transformed by Covid-19 and projects such as the mass rollout of iPads. He also suggested there was scope to investigate how digital technology could provide access to a greater range of subjects and courses.
“Our schools are about so much more than just delivering educational content,” he said. “They’re about the broader development of young people and I don’t ever want that message to get lost.
“We already have young people going out of school to colleges to do apprenticeships and we have them going to the Advanced Higher hub to do courses that aren’t on offer in their school. If you can then, through digital devices and online learning, add to what already exists, whether that’s widening the subjects on offer, that can only ever be a good thing.”
Dr Mark Winterbottom, Chair of the RSB judging panel, said: “Paul is very clear that his achievements reflect the hard work and team-effort of his whole department.
“He is an outstanding and committed teacher who represents the very best of biology teaching in this country.”