Science practicals plan will end 'Fawlty Towers' assessment, Ofqual insists

4th February 2015 at 12:11

Ofqual has mounted a robust defence of its controversial decision to exclude practical science work from GCSE and A-level grades, describing the current system as “broken”.

Glenys Stacey, the watchdog’s chief regulator, hit back after education secretary Nicky Morgan last week warned that the plans were “in danger of holding back the next generation of scientists”.

Ms Stacey insisted that such fears were unfounded, and said Ofqual’s plans would actually lead to more and science practical work, that was “much less contrived” being carried out in schools.

“The assessment system has encouraged many excellent teachers to repeat and rehearse the same, narrow group of practicals in order to achieve the best possible grades,” she told the Association of Colleges Examinations Officers’ Conference in Nottingham this morning.

“Much like we all turn off our televisions at Christmas when presented with a schedule full of repeats, so we risk doing the same to our children. This is wrong and it needs to change.”

The current system was leading to pupils “going through the motions” in an “intensely dull” and “stultifying” experience, Ms Stacey said, on the day that the consultation on the GCSE science practical proposals closed.

Extending the TV analogy, she likened the status quo to Fawlty Towers but said Ofqual’s vision represented Tomorrow’s World, and had received “enormous support” from teachers

Ms Stacey said Ofqual’s plans – fiercely opposed by most of the scientific community as well as the Department for Education (DfE) – had been drawn up after looking at “all available evidence” and listening to universities, teachers and pupils.

“This evidence has led us to rip up the tired old script, adding a huge dollop of improvisation, and look to help teachers inspire the next generation of scientists,” she said. “That’s what we believe tomorrow’s world should be like."

Earlier this week Hilary Leevers, head of education at the Wellcome Trust, which has been campaigning against Ofqual's proposals, warned that they could lead to an erosion of practical resources in schools and were “gambling” with future generations of scientists.

She said the idea that it was impossible to come up with a way of retaining practical science assessment in exam grades that would satisfy both Ofqual and the exam boards was “ludicrous”.

Ms Stacey also addressed another controversy that has seen Ofqual criticised by the DfE – the fears of a “race to the bottom” over standards in new maths GCSEs.

She defended Ofqual’s work in ensuring that standards were met, and revealed that 4,000 pupils would be taking extra mock exams that the regulator is holding to “reassure” itself over the changes.

On the quality of marking, Ms Stacey criticsed exam boards over cases where remarks have resulted in students being awarded significantly higher marks. In some cases, students' grades had risen from a D to a B, she said.

“The boards have told us that in many cases big grade changes are caused by clerical errors, such as incorrect addition or transcription of marks, rather than poor-quality marking,” she said. “Irrespective of the cause, these sorts of changes are indefensible.”  


Related stories:

Exam boards stick to science plans despite government criticism – January 28 2015

Ofqual seeks to ensure all things are equal in maths – January 23 2015

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


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today