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Scientists warn against Ofqual's 'dangerous' plans for practicals

Ofqual’s plan to remove the assessment of practical work from new science GCSEs has triggered a backlash from scientists, headteachers and examiners.

The watchdog has argued that its proposal for the reformed qualifications to be assessed entirely by written exam will improve the quality of practical science work in schools.

Glenys Stacey, Ofqual's chief regulator, told TES earlier this week that the current arrangements, where a quarter of GCSE marks come from controlled assessment of practical work, were encouraging “stultifying” and narrow teaching to the test.

But today the science lobby is warning that making 15 per cent of written exam questions the only check on pupils’ laboratory work is a dangerous gamble that could jeopardise young people’s futures.

Writing for TES on behalf of the Wellcome Trust, Sir John Holman says that Ofqual’s plan could be a threat to the strength of science practicals in England’s schools.

“The risk is that this new proposal will take us out of the frying pan and into the fire,” writes the emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of York.

“Teachers are brilliantly skilled at preparing their pupils for exams, and I have yet to be shown a written question about an experiment that could only be answered by pupils who really have done the experiment themselves.

“So, under pressure of time and reducing budgets, there will be a temptation to short-cut around practical classes and prepare only for the written exam.”

His comments are a blow to Ofqual’s case, as the regulator quotes the Wellcome Trust’s views extensively to justify its proposals.

Criticism has also come from the Campaign for Science and Engineering, which is concerned that the plans mean “a real danger of further erosion of practical science experience and skills”.

Dr Sarah Main, director of the campaign, questioned the idea that practical science could be properly assessed through written tests.

“The risk of unintended consequences is high here,” she said. “An awful lot is riding on designing written exams that test practical skills and we have yet to see any evidence that that will work.”

Michael O’Sullivan, chief executive of the Cambridge International Examinations exam board, has raised doubts about the usefulness of Ofqual’s proposed requirement for schools to confirm that pupils have completed practical science work.

“Surely at best that is evidence of action; it is not evidence of attainment of any kind,” he said at a Westminster Education Forum seminar.

Speaking at the same event, Cherry Ridgway, curriculum and assessment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, warned that ending the assessment of science practicals could lead to an education system that had “nothing to offer those who learn through practical application”.

Related stories:

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

Leading scientists attack end of link between A-level grades and practical skills – 9 April 2014

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

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