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School practicals are 'scientifically rubbish', conference told

Practical work in many science lessons is “scientifically rubbish” and requires students to “jump through hoops” rather than explore the world, a conference has heard.

Simon Clarkson, a Leicestershire-based science teacher, told the ATL teaching union's annual conference in Liverpool that he backed the exams regulator Ofqual, which has unveiled plans to stop practical assessments counting towards GCSE and A-level grades.

Mr Clarkson told the conference: “Currently a lot of practical work at GCSE is scientifically rubbish.  

“We don’t ask our students to find things out, to explore the world around them. Instead, we ask our students to jump through hoops.”

He said every science teacher he knew had taken Ofqual’s side over the issue. The reforms would “give us the space to do some real science,” he said.

Geoff Pye, a teacher in Southend, said his school taught international GCSE science courses.

“We actually teach them to do real practicals, and [their] skills…are the best I have ever seen,” he said. “When we get new pupils coming in from other schools to start A-levels having done the traditional examined course, their practical skills are nowhere near our standard.”

He said that under Ofqual’s reforms, “practicals will still have to be done and they are high-skill practicals and they will be embedded into the schemes of work".

“I am positive about practicals,” he added.

However, delegates at the conference voted in favour of a motion that said the ATL “deplores” Ofqual’s reforms. The motion commits the union to lobbying the government “to have Ofqual’s decision reversed or amended so that the assessment of practical work in science subjects at AS- and A-level is included in the overall qualification grade.”

The union also passed a motion to “combat any notion that creationism is a science”. If creationism was taught in schools, it said, the subject should be “clearly categorised as a religious belief”.  

Louise Atkinson, a Cumbria-based teacher, said she was a Christian and had felt “bombarded” with the presentation of evolution as a fact on a recent school trip.

“If you’re teaching the theory of evolution as science, you shouldn’t shut the door to different theories of how we came to be,” she said.

But Alastair MacPherson, an Edinburgh-based science teacher said: "The theory of evolution has been proven…Let’s take creationism to where it needs to be [and] let’s keep science where it needs to be. If you come up with scientific theories, I’ll teach them in science." 

Related stories

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

Removal of practicals from GCSEs has 'great potential for damage', experts warn – 8 January, 2015

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