Science must be more practical

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
There is no doubt that practical science work has declined in schools. A while ago, I watched a television programme in which Jonathan Edwards, the triple jumper, ran across custard in a practical demonstration to show that science is about experiments.

Doubtless, his quirky demonstration would have appealed to pupils who, these days, have little opportunity for hands-on science experiments.

A number of factors are contributing to this deplorable decline - and at a time when there is a shortage of scientists in industry, even though our future economy depends on a steady supply. And most scientists in industry are engaged in practical work.

The decline in pupil behaviour must be one cause of this. A recent ICM poll found that 87 per cent of teachers had stopped practicals at least once because of poor pupil behaviour.

Science teachers are afraid of litigation and are aware of COSHH (control of substances hazardous to health) legislation. However, few experiments are banned provided safety considerations are taken into account.

Then there is the decline in technician support as schools try to save money. Science technicians are badly paid, while the poor state of laboratories often militates against practical work.

Science courses are heavy on theory, much of which is far too advanced for most pupils, with most courses attracting 75 per cent of the marks for this. The sterile, mundane and mind-numbing coursework takes up an inordinate amount of time.

Practical experiments enthuse pupils about science and certainly help understanding of the difficult theory. Some concepts are so abstract that it is impossible to understand them properly without doing practical work.

And without such motivation, pupils think that science is just a collection of facts to be ingested and there is nothing to differentiate it from any other subject.

Pupil-teacher relationships are improved with practical work as there is more interaction. More experiments would improve A-level staying-on rates.

The decline in pupils studying science post-16 could be reversed, with greater enthusiasm for the subject. The Assembly and Westminster governments urgently need to address this problem if we are to remain an economically competitive nation.

Jim Goodall is a science teacher from Torfaen

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