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Abolishing science coursework should mean more practicals, says exam board

Schools should carry out more practical science work as a result of coursework being abolished for A levels and GCSEs, one of the country’s biggest exam boards has said.

As part of its reforms, the exams watchdog Ofqual has proposed to abandon coursework and controlled assessment in preference for more traditional end-of-course tests.

In response, the OCR exam board has said that students should carry out a wide range of work to develop their practical skills, which could then be “endorsed” by their teachers to confirm that the work has been done.

The exam board's recommendations come just over a month after a report into science teaching by Ofsted said that science GCSEs were failing to equip students with the necessary practical skills. 

Tim Oates, director of assessment, research and development at Cambridge Assessment, OCR’s parent organisation, is expected to spell out his views on practical work at the Association for Science Education conference in Birmingham later this week.

Mr Oates described teachers, students and examiners as being stuck in a “quagmire of coursework”, which would account for as much as 33 per cent of some A-level science qualifications.

But he warned against any decisions that could lead to students carrying out less practical work, rather than more.

“Although it is widely recognised that the current system of coursework assessment does not work, we should not promote approaches which may also abolish science experiments in the classroom,” he said.

“There is unequivocal evidence from many years of research that shows that children and young people acquire understanding of vital aspects of biology, chemistry and physics far more effectively when programmes include learning grounded in experiments in the classroom.

“Just as in medical education, a rich mixture of practice and theory results in the deep, secure learning we all seek.”

OCR has also run a series of pilots that saw students carry out practical work while also taking an externally-assessed written paper to demonstrate their understanding of any lab work.

It comes ahead of the 17 January consultation deadline on A-level reform.

OCR’s chief executive Mark Dawe said: “Universities and employers need confidence that A-level science qualifications deliver the practical skills that young people need in the workplace or higher education. We want students to do lots of practicals and, most importantly, to learn from their successes and mistakes.”

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