Experiments are often regarded as the lifeblood of the sciences, igniting students' curiosity with the much-needed "wow" factor. But a new report from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) raises concerns over the widening gap between the state and independent sectors when it comes to practicals.
The study, which quotes numbers from a Science Community Representing Education (Score) report published last year, says that funding for experiments is as low as 75p per student per year in some state schools, compared with an average of pound;27 in independent schools. In some private schools, the figure is as high as pound;83.
With an average of almost pound;9 across the state sector, Case is calling on the government for more investment in school science practicals in an effort to level the playing field.
Sarah Main, director of Case - a lobby group that represents some of the biggest science bodies and universities in the UK - warned that the subject was becoming the domain of private schools and said more should be done to encourage state school students to opt for the sciences at A-level.
"The independent sector, as a proportion, puts more students through science and maths by a long, long way," Dr Main told TES. "And their levels of attainment are much higher. A gulf is opening up between the two sectors, which is worrying."
Case published a series of briefings earlier this month intended to influence the manifestos of the three main political parties ahead of next year's general election. As well as calling for more targeted funding for science experiments, the lobby group proposes that schools should be better resourced across the board to avoid areas such as science practicals being cut to reduce costs.
Dr Main's comments were supported by last week's publication of national data on this year's A-level results, which show that private schools significantly outperformed their state rivals in the three sciences. Nearly a fifth of independent school entries achieved A* grades in both A-level biology and physics, and about one in six reached the same grade in chemistry. However, less than one in 10 state school entries gained the top grade in each of the three subjects.
Earlier this year, chancellor George Osborne and then education minister Liz Truss launched the Your Life campaign to encourage more state school students to study subjects including physics and maths at A-level. Speaking in May, Ms Truss said that England's state schools were suffering from "science deserts" where too few teenagers, particularly girls, were studying the subjects beyond GCSE.
But science campaigners expressed concern that politicians were merely paying lip service to the issue. They reported significant fears that the government's decision to remove science practicals from key assessments for GCSE and A-level would cause further damage.
Professor Julia Buckingham, chair of Score and vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said practicals were an "integral part" of science and called for better support for schools.
"Practicals are what scientists do and they are also the things that excite young people," she said. "The things that go `bang' stimulate their curiosity and creativity. You have to be curious and creative to be a scientist, so I see [practicals] as being absolutely integral."
The lack of funding and equipment in the state sector, at primary and secondary level, was a "huge problem", Professor Buckingham added, but she was optimistic that the move away from experiments in schools could be reversed and that the sciences would not become the preserve of the privileged.
"There is no doubt that the independent sector does very well and is well resourced, but there is some splendid work happening in state schools. There are some schools that are not doing so well in the maintained sector, so we must do more to ensure that there are equal opportunities for all of our young people," she added.
Alom Shaha, a physics teacher at the Camden School for Girls in London, said the main issue that schools should focus on was providing better quality practical work, rather than simply offering more of it.
"There is a lot of research on the effect of practical work in lessons and it is surprising," Mr Shaha said. "We think they are the best way to engage students and to teach the subjects, but the research shows practical work is a very ineffective way of teaching.
"Practical work is a crucial part of teaching the sciences but it is just one part, and quality matters more than quantity. The reason that private schools do better and have better take up at A-level is more a case of the schools being clearer that they are facilitating subjects."
Under the microscope
- Average spend on practicals: pound;8.81 (per pupil per year)
- Lowest spend on practicals: 75p
- Highest spend on practicals: pound;31.25
- Percentage of A-level entries achieving A*: 8.5 per cent in biology; 8.2 per cent in chemistry; 9.1 per cent in physics
- Average spend on practicals: pound;27.29
- Lowest spend on practicals: pound;7.18
- Highest spend on practicals: pound;83.21
- Percentage of A-level entries achieving A*: 19.7 per cent in biology; 17.2 per cent in chemistry; 19 per cent in physics