UK Science is not going to be killed by the changes to practical work in schools

It’s understandable that many in the science community are alarmed about the changes to the assessment of practical work in A-level science subjects, but as a Physics teacher working under the current system, I don’t think it is a “totally, unequivocally shit idea”. And I’m not the only teacher to think that.

Proclaiming that Ofqual have sounded the “death knell for UK science education” betrays a lack of understanding and knowledge of the realities of school science lessons and of how broken and corrupt the current situation is. As my friend and fellow Physics teacher Alby Reid puts it, “The removal of coursework from A Level science is only “a death knell for UK science” if “UK science” depends on your ability to plagiarise”.

The decision by Ofqual to remove the contribution of practical work to A-level science grades may be a cop-out in terms of dealing with the problems of the current methods for assessment, but it is undeniable that the current forms of assessing practical work are deeply flawed. In my opinion, they’re actually detrimental to the quality of practical work that gets done in schools.

It’s possible, then, that the changes may ultimately lead to an improvement in the quality of practical work that is done in schools. I would suggest that it is the responsibility of the learned societies and others making a fuss about this to take practical steps towards ensuring that happens. By, for example, providing high quality resources to help science teachers integrate good, pedagogically sound, practical work into their schemes of work. Like this, perhaps?

I’d encourage those who care about science education to develop an appreciation of the complexities and realities of how practical work in schools is currently carried out, and of how much work is needed to ensure that practical work is genuinely doing all those things we’d like it to do for children’s science education.

10 thoughts on “UK Science is not going to be killed by the changes to practical work in schools”

  1. I take your point but to be fair on the Physiological Society in the article you link to they also say “Practical work is absolutely integral to the sciences and therefore should be reflected in the final grade.” which I hope we can all agree on. Speaking as a university academic, if this change leads to less emphasis on practical work, students will then be less well prepared for a university science education

    1. Speaking as an A level teacher, who had NO equipment teaching it, you probably wouldn’t notice! First year courses are spent raising all U/grads to the same level after differing grades and exam boards. They would just have to throw more practical in.

      It is possible (not recommended) to teach A level biology without any practical work.

      That being said, I love practical and agree it should reflect on a final grade. Students’ practical ability should absolutely determine if they pass. Saying that there will be a practical certificate that, if failed, has no bearing on A level outcome is ridiculous.

      Ofqual seem to suggest that exam boards may have to visit centres and inspect quality of practical work. If this becomes the case, then why not invigilate a practical exam, like in Drama.

  2. Practical skills are essential, but can’t be examined easily without a lot of investment. Most students can’t focus a microscope after leaving school and many blag it through degrees never acquiring that skill. How do you test the ability of a student to focus a microscope in an exam in a cost effective manner? Surely you can only test such skills in a 1:1 way, and that will never be possible.

    The expensive nature of practical work means that students have to work in groups, where inevitably some students will stand around doing very little. Chuck some sodium in a duckpond, though, and you make a point few will forget.

    As long as you explain what happened.

  3. I do wonder whether the reaction from scientists is part of the “XYZ got me into science, therefore we need more of XYZ to get others into science” approach to education rather than a more nuanced approach that can broaden the interest in, and access to, science.

  4. Alom, you are quite right.

    Firstly let me say that I am an experimental physicist. However at School I hated ‘experiments’: indeed they were not experiments all but ritualistic reconstructions of some activity deemed important by somebody a long time ago for reasons I never understood.

    The key aims of every experiment were to (a) finish on time – they were always a rush and (b) get the ‘right answer’. There was no ‘training’, no investigation’ just the learning of rituals.

    My A-level examination was a joke.. It was something about a metre rule suspended horizontally at either end and we needed to do some kind of pendulum thing to it. I guess it tested something but I don’t know what.

    As I understand it, the changes proposed require only a basic exposure to a larger number of experiments which then are ‘passed’. Hopefully this will get some of the tension out this aspect of teaching and allow it to come alive as a small rock pool of relatively unexamined teaching time. I know I know – it will never happen, but allow me to hope!

  5. There has been quite a bit of tweaking to science practical work, but I think we should concentrate on how it is presented. Having worked in schools for over 20 years preparing practical work. I notice the shift from doing proper experiments like we used to do in school ( Hypothesis, Aim, Method, Results, Conclusions etc which is considered “old fashioned” probably as we never see it ) to “activities” designed to show the point being taught (and often fudged by the technician to actually show the point). In this change, practical work was scheduled to happen every lesson and if an activity took half an hour to actually achieve ( and clear up) it became a real squeeze to get it all in with the theory and the conclusions at the end. In many cases things left on the window for future observation are just abandoned as the stressed teacher with deadlines to meet moves on to the next topic.
    Pupils do not get a sense of what practical work is really about. The days of an afternoon long practical session are gone. Practicals have become just snippets that fit into a powerpoint presentation and don’t allow for much independent thought on the part of the pupil.
    This is dangerous as younger teachers seem to just follow the recipe too and often don’t see practical work as exciting only a box to tick in the lesson plan.. science has lost a lot of charm recently.

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