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Teachers support us on changes to science practicals, says OCR

Science teachers are backing controversial changes to A-level and GCSE science practical work, according to one of England’s big three school exam boards.

Ofqual’s plan to stop assessment of practicals contributing to overall grades in both types of exams is widely opposed by science groups, who fear it will lead to laboratory experiments being downgraded in schools.

But the OCR exam board, which has lobbied for the new approach, says that teachers like the idea when they have been presented with the details during trials.

“We are getting really positive feedback now,” OCR chief executive Mark Dawe told TES. “We have said all along that we think this new way of working will be really positive for the student experience and we are now seeing that come through from the pilots.”

Last week, former Ofsted chief inspector and Department for Education permanent secretary Sir David Bell, who is serving as president of the Association for Science Education for 2015, described the changes as a “highly dangerous experiment”.

But Mr Dawe said that science teachers tended to disagree when they learned about the changes, which aim to improve the quality of science practical work in schools by removing the direct link with high stakes exam grades.

“They have actually really welcomed the opportunity to be able to sit with the students and assist them through the practical,” he said. “Putting them in a false environment when they sit through a controlled assessment doesn’t really help them enormously.”

Asked why the idea was being pursued when so many in the scientific community were opposing it, Mr Dawe said: “But they’re not any more. We are getting the science community, who are now engaged with these pilots, starting to give us positive feedback, [saying], ‘We had our concerns but we can see how this will be beneficial’.

“It is about the right implementation and the teachers and pupils embracing it. If that happens then I think we will see more practical work.

“A student doing three sciences is going to end up doing 36 practicals as a minimum and that was never a requirement before.”

The reception that OCR is getting will delight Ofqual chief executive Glenys Stacey, who has said she expects teachers to be “punching the air” because of the requirement to carry out a wide range of practicals.

Ofqual decided last year to end the link between practical science work and overall A-level grades in the face of strong opposition from the scientific community, which argued that it would send the wrong signal to schools.

Less than a fifth of those responding to the watchdog’s consultation agreed with the plan, and the government's chief science adviser Sir Mark Walport said it risked downgrading practical skills.

Despite this, the regulator is consulting on similar changes for GCSEs.

Related stories:

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

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