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Wellcome Trust: ‘Removing practical science from GCSEs jeopardises thousands of pupils’ careers’

Sir John Holman, education adviser to the Wellcome Trust and emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of York, writes:

If you’ve visited schools in Europe, Asia and America, you will appreciate that UK schools are well-prepared for practical science. Compared with other countries, most schools have well-equipped labs and solid technician support. The conditions are right for practical science to be a strength in UK schools.

But there may be a threat. Ofqual is proposing that GCSE science should no longer include any direct assessment of practical skills. Instead, 15 per cent of the written exam marks will be for “questions that directly solicit students’ first-hand knowledge of practical experiments”. 

Very few would defend the current system of controlled assessment of practical skills, which can narrow practical work down to a small number of experiments that are endlessly repeated to improve pupils’ chances of high marks. This makes a mockery of practical science, which is central to the subject, not just a way of learning about it. It should inspire pupils and stimulate their curiosity, as well as honing their experimental skills. Many teachers will cheer at the news that controlled assessments are to go.

But the risk is that this new proposal will take us out of the frying pan and into the fire. 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. 

As with the similar proposals for A-level sciences earlier this year, there is a risk that headteachers will conclude that practical science – because it doesn’t count towards exam grades – no longer counts at all. We may see a steady reduction in the amount of practical science, which was once such a brilliant feature of science in many English schools. This would have an impact on the motivation of pupils to continue to study the sciences and on the practical skills they take to employment and universities – which are already complaining about their decline.

Ofqual believes that these new proposals will lead to an improvement in the quantity and quality of practical work, as schools are released from the yoke of controlled assessment. I hope they are right, but it is a gamble that could jeopardise many thousands of pupils’ future careers. 

If the proposals for A-level and GCSE science practicals go ahead, we need to monitor carefully what happens to practical science over the coming years. The Wellcome Trust, the Gatsby Foundation and the Nuffield Foundation – three Trusts with a deep interest in science education – have partnered to collect evidence about what happens to practical work in our schools.

A long-term monitoring programme will capture changes in the quality and quantity of practical science in schools and colleges, and we will evaluate the impact of recent curriculum and assessment reform on school activity. The consortium is also planning to test whether questions in a written exam really can assess the skills and knowledge that can only come from doing an experiment.

If, after monitoring practical science over several years, we find that both quantity and quality are improving, there will be much rejoicing in the science community. If, on the other hand, we find evidence that practical work is declining still further, quick action will be needed.

Related links:

Ofqual: science practicals will no longer count towards GCSE grades

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

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