Sarah Earle's story – Bath Spa University

Sarah is a Reader in Education and focuses on supporting science teaching and leadership in primary schools. In the last few years she’s supported over 8,000 teachers to develop their skills.

“When I added up all the keynotes and talks I’ve done, it’s then when I realised how much I was doing. It all helps the research but it’s also supportive for the teachers to hear about the resources directly.”

Developing my passion

Working with children was always something I was going to do but it’s taken many shapes throughout my career. I started as a primary school teacher, then became a lecturer training new teachers and now I support practising teachers through my research. Although I’m one step back from directly working with children, working with teachers to support their pupils gives me a wider reach and means that I can make a positive impact on more children’s learning.

My interest in working with children developed when I was younger. I’m the eldest in a big family and my parents also fostered for many years. Seeing the difficulties the foster children faced, together with spending periods on 'free school meals', gave me this lifelong passion for supporting children.

My Bath Spa journey

Specialising in science

I was a primary school teacher in Bristol for 13 years, teaching all subjects, but I became particularly interested in science. In 2003 my headteacher saw an advert for a science subject leadership course at Bath Spa which I then chose to take onto Master’s level. It really got me started in the world of supporting teachers with science and led to my decision to specialise in science.

By 2008 I was teaching part-time at school and had a visiting lecture role on the Bath Spa Primary and Early Years PGCE. Jumping between the two roles was interesting - it was a bit of a challenge going from children in the morning to adults in the afternoon. In 2012 I took a full-time role at Bath Spa as a PGCE tutor working with the primary science team and Bath Spa teachers.

Moving into research

In 2013 I joined a research project called Teacher Assessment in Primary Science (TAPS) and that has grown to take over my whole role. We’ve had research funding from the Primary Science Teaching Trust which has grown into a large randomised controlled trial with the Education Endowment Foundation. I’ve now moved from the PGCE tutor role to a Reader in Education and haven’t taught on the PGCE for a few years.

From 2013 to 2018, I was also doing a part-time PhD which developed as part of the TAPS project. Doing the PhD part-time meant that I was able to continue teaching on the PGCE, but also further develop my research interest in primary science teacher assessment. In the end I've become Dr TAPS!

Transitioning from teaching to research

My research is so collaborative that most of the time I’m still working with teachers. The pandemic obviously made it much more difficult because in primary science you’re usually there face-to-face exploring things together.

In my head I split my job into two parts - doing the research and development side and then the training sessions with practising teachers. The continuing professional development (CPD) side has become a bigger part of my role as we have lots of resources to support the teachers, but then we decided we also needed the training to go alongside that. Meaning I still get to have that hands-on experience with teachers.

Making an impact through TAPS

Science is a core subject but not as high profile as English and maths. Often primary school teachers are not science specialists, so it’s important that we support them in the classroom by providing resources and training for science teaching and assessments. We want to show the teachers how to support children to carry out investigations and record their ideas, making them feel more confident in the classroom.

All of our resources are free to access and download because it’s all been funded by the Primary Science Teaching Trust. Our resources include 100+ lesson plans, examples of assessments and examples of pupil work. We ensure the resources are user friendly by developing them collaboratively with teachers. I've worked with 80 schools across the four nations of the UK to develop resources and we've had 250,000 people across 123 countries download them.

Alongside this, we’ve developed some training which is currently being evaluated by the Education Endowment Foundation. They’ve funded a randomised control trial of 120 schools across England where half of the teachers have had the training and the other half haven’t. This will allow us to compare pupil outcomes and the impact of the training. I delivered the training and worked with the teachers over the last two years and then UCL are evaluating the pupil data and interviewing teachers. We started the trial during the pandemic so we’re very proud that we’ve managed to get some data at all. The results will be released next year and show whether the training has made a difference. It’s an independent evaluation so although we have the data, I have to wait to hear the results. Watch this space!

"If you want to know something about primary science then I’m your girl."

Staying connected with Bath Spa teachers

Using research to inform our teaching

When I was doing teaching and research at the University we started bringing my research into our teaching. I still work closely with the primary science team at Bath Spa so that what we’re developing is then passed onto the students. Basically they get a first look at it all. This means that primary science at Bath Spa is really strong because it’s research-informed by current research.

I see the trainees as part of the group that we’re talking to so some of the research has been developed with them. They’re often invited to collaborate if they want to try out some activities and give us feedback.

I’m now being invited to talk to other universities about primary science and explain what we’re doing. TAPS is already embedded in primary science training at Bath Spa whereas it’s just starting at other universities.

Opportunities to get involved in research

Bath Spa teachers, our graduates, have the opportunity to keep in contact with us about these projects and get involved. Another project I work on is Thinking, Doing, Talking Science. It’s run by Science Oxford but I deliver it around the country. I’ve been recruiting teachers for the programme from North Somerset and I’ll probably end up working with teachers that did their PGCE at Bath Spa. The last time I ran the trial I’d only just stopped teaching on the PGCE and about three of the people in the group had studied at Bath Spa and then went on to take part in the research project.

There’s one trainee for example, who did the science specialist route about eight years ago, he’s kept in contact and is taking part in TAPS research. There are always ongoing opportunities to stay involved with research and development with primary science at Bath Spa.

Opportunities for CPD

There’s also the opportunity for Bath Spa teachers to be involved in CPD long after they graduate. It’s really important as you don’t just do your one year of training and then you’re done. Teaching is something that evolves over time so you’re always learning, trying new things and developing. Until recently, these opportunities would have mainly been available to Bath Spa teachers that stayed local, but due to the growth in online CPD they can get involved from wherever they are.

I actively advertise these opportunities on my Twitter. @prisciearle seems to have become a big part of actually recruiting schools for projects and disseminating training and resources.

My big tip if you’re applying for a PGCE

Try and get into a school and get some experience. Not only to see what it’s like but also to get a feel for where you want to be and what age group you want to work with. For some people it’s really obvious, they’ve always had a passion for working with young children, but that’s one of the big decisions you want to be sure of before you start a teacher training course. And you almost don’t know until you try it. We base our ideas about school on our own experience of being a child at school so it’s good to get into a school as an adult.

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