Science trials raise practical concerns to boiling point

6th February 2015 at 00:00
Exam boards claim teachers back reform despite problems

Teachers taking part in official trials of controversial new arrangements for practical science work at A-level have highlighted a host of potential problems, TES can reveal.

Difficulties in assessing large groups of students, the extra burden on resources and how to decide whether the required standard has been reached are among the concerns identified by staff at 22 schools and colleges, according to exam boards.

In their report, the boards acknowledge that teachers will need more "guidance and support", but they say the trials show that the new approach, determined by exams regulator Ofqual, can be run effectively. The document also reveals that teachers think some aspects of the assessments will be "straightforward".

Changes to practicals have been opposed by a large proportion of the scientific establishment, because assessment of the work will no longer count towards final grades in science A-levels. Scientists are concerned that this decision, and similar proposals for new science GCSEs, will lead to a downgrading of practical skills.

Last week, education secretary Nicky Morgan added weight to the campaign for a rethink when she said the changes were "in danger of holding back the next generation of scientists".

But the exam boards have insisted that teachers support the plans, which will actually lead to a greater requirement for practical science work to take place in schools, although it will not contribute to final grades.

Last month, OCR issued a press release about the A-level trials saying that teachers were "enthusiastic" and had given the "thumbs up" to the approach. Andrew Hall, chief executive of AQA, also said teachers were positive about the move.

But it took repeated requests from TES before the four boards involved agreed to reveal any results from the trials, and the document that has now been released is only a summary. It offers a precis of points made by teachers who tried to assess whether pupils' work deserved a pass or fail under the new "common practical assessment criteria".

Negative points slightly outnumber positive ones, with several calls for further information and clarification about what the key parts of the approach mean.

The joint report by the exam boards says that teachers think it will be "difficult to decide whether the required standard has been reached" on research skills and that they fear proposed assessment of scientific investigations will "place a burden on resources". But it states that teachers' comments on the "wider impact" of the approach are positive, although just two quotes are provided.

The report also concludes that teachers believe the new approach will "offer great opportunities for doing `good science' " and that universities are likely to require a pass in the new assessments. However, it does not offer any evidence to back these statements up.

Hilary Leevers, head of education at the Wellcome Trust, which is backing the campaign against the proposals, said the trials might provide information on whether teachers could "consistently assess if students had acquired particular practical skills".

"They were not, however, set up to explore how to differentiate among students, beyond a passfail, or what the impacts will be on student experience," she added. "We urge Ofqual to explore how its approach to assessment could provide more information on student skills than a passfail and to work to reintroduce a measure of practical skills into A-level grades."


Ofqual's controversial scheme to stop the assessment of practical science work contributing to GCSE and A-level grades has received "enormous support" from teachers, the watchdog claimed this week.

Glenys Stacey, Ofqual's chief regulator, described the current system as "broken" and likened it to Fawlty Towers. She insisted that fears voiced by scientists and the government that the change would downgrade practical work were "unfounded".

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