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Exam boards stick to science plans despite government criticism

Ofqual and England’s exam boards have shrugged off government criticism of their plan to stop practical science from counting towards school exam grades, insisting that teachers are “enthusiastic” about the idea.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan intervened last night in the increasingly contentious row over Ofqual’s plan to remove practical assessment from final GCSE and A-level science grades.

The regulator encountered fierce opposition from the scientific establishment, which argued that the changes will lead to the marginalisation of practical work in schools, damaging the future of science. Now Ms Morgan has revealed that she agrees.

“While I fully understand the concerns Ofqual have in ensuring that assessment remains rigorous and resistant to gaming, I am concerned that a decision to remove practical assessment from science qualifications is in danger of holding back the next generation of scientists,” the education secretary told an event organised by the Politeia thinktank.

“Like many in our scientific community, I fear that such a move could inadvertently downgrade the importance of these practical skills, leaving a generation of chemists, physicists and biologists who leave schools with excellent theoretical knowledge, but are unable to perform key practical experiments which form the basis of a future research career.”

Her comments leave Ofqual in a difficult position. The watchdog is supposed to be independent from the Department for Education (DfE), but ministers decide its funding levels and appoint the chief regulator. Ofqual is already under pressure, with DfE sources expressing their displeasure about how it dealt with a separate row over maths GCSE standards.

However, Ofqual was sticking to its guns today over the science proposals, stating that they were “designed to invigorate the hands-on learning experience of students and equip them for a future in science”.

Steve Evans, head of general qualification reform at the OCR exam board, was similarly convinced. “Trials show that teachers and students are enthusiastic about the new proposals and we hope that their enthusiasm can help win over the science community," he said.

“Like the education secretary, OCR cares about the next generation of scientists and has been making sure that they leave school having obtained the deeper understanding of science best gained through more practicals and greater experimentation.”

Ofqual and the boards argue that their plans will actually enhance practical science by removing a temptation to teach to the test. It will still be a requirement to carry out experiments for the qualifications, with a greater variety demanded, even though they will not count towards final grades.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board, said: “We want the new approach to make a positive difference in terms of science practicals, so that students spend more time gaining a broad range and depth of practical skills.

"The good news is that when we have been talking to teachers about this recently, they are really seeing how it will improve teaching and learning and get back to focusing on real science, not drilling students in the perfection of a single task.”

The proposals for A-levels were finalised by Ofqual last year and some within the scientific community accept that it will now be too late to reverse them without causing teachers major difficulties.

But similar changes for science GCSEs are still being consulted on and fought against.

Hilary Leevers, head of education at the Wellcome Trust, said that without the assessment of practicals “science GCSEs and A-levels would simply say what students know about science, not whether they can actually do it”.

“I am delighted that Nicky Morgan appreciates the importance of ensuring that all students get to experience practical science and that their skills are reflected in their qualifications and we hope to work with Ofqual to make sure that we can bring this about,” she said.

Related stories:

The TES Podcast - science practicals – January 16, 2015

Ofqual: science practicals will no longer count towards GCSE grades – December 10, 2014

Practical science to be removed from A levels due to fears of cheating and over-marking – October 25, 2013

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