Are we focusing too much on examining practical science?

What’s the use of this? Lab Science Career, CC BY-NC-SA

Science evokes images of Bunsen burners, coloured liquids, vapours rising from flasks, white coats and safety goggles. But are we making too much of the rigid assessment of the practical parts of science in our school curriculum?

Ofqual, the examination regulatory body, has announced that practical work will no longer count towards the final examination grade in A levels. This has happened despite intense opposition from science teachers and learned scientific bodies, represented by SCORE. How can we say that a student has achieved any level of competence in a subject if a key skill is not being assessed, they argue?

The reason for the removal of the practical work from the final grade is based mainly on two issues. First, what was examined at GCSE and A level had become a joke. The set list of practical activities that constituted independent skills assessments and controlled assessments at A level were as relevant to real science as a banana is to a fish.

They were regularly abused and students routinely scored high marks as the system was exploited to bump up grades. As yet, no decision has been made on how, or even if, practical skills will be a part of the overall GCSE grade.

Second, setting practical examinations that are a real test of skill, problem solving and aptitude may just be too difficult. Ofqual feels the current assessments are too predictable, they don’t reflect students’ overall ability (as most students get high results) and they are open to malpractice. Rather than tackle these difficulties, its alternative is a list of 12 practical experiments that students must complete with the award of a pass/fail certificate to accompany the A level grade.

The practicalities

In my early days as a teacher we ran practical examinations, set by the exam boards. They were difficult to organise and set up – it invariably meant that laboratories were taken out of action for a period of time, along with laboratory technicians, so that the equipment could be set up.

It involved high levels of security to ensure the details of the experiments were not leaked to the students and it incurred costs – the purchase of certain equipment, chemicals or specimens that matched the exam board requirements. The examination then had to be invigilated, like any other. All the time the rest of the pupils needed their fair share of work and practical investigations.

So, was it worth it? Yes. Sometimes the practical examination utilised experiments that pupils had done before or variations on an experiment that tested their ability to apply their knowledge and skills to new problems. But ultimately the students understood that associated with the knowledge and theoretical elements of science were skills and procedures which informed that theory.

What are the inherent dangers with the new proposals? The first is the downgrading of experimental work to a minimum list of 12 – there is a danger that this becomes the norm. Schools looking to cut costs may take a reductionist view of science, reducing budgets, laboratory technical support, perhaps even the requirement for laboratories.

Much of what needs to be taught could arguably be taught in general classrooms – as a science teacher I don’t object to this for some lessons. But laboratories could be seen to be unnecessary for most science teaching and learning.

Associated experimental work may be reduced to YouTube video clips, watch-and-learn type activities such as demonstrations by the teacher, or reliance on experimental simulations on interactive white boards. Could this become the norm for practical science – no actual hands-on simply simulations?

Universities already decry the skills of A level students and their inability to carry out what were once standard procedures. This move will not improve matters.

The opportunities

But of course there is always a flip side to any change. Could this move actually be better for practical science?

The current system with its woefully inadequate controlled assessments of practical skills serves little to no purpose at GCSE and needs to change. At A level, again there are limited assessments and this leads to some schools only teaching a limited set of skills – those needed to pass the assessments.

If I were a head of science now, I would be looking to secure some assurances for my students from the school’s senior management team that laboratory space and budgets will not be cut. My next move would be to look at what, ideally, we would like our practical/theoretical integration at A level to look like. What can we do now that previously we couldn’t due to time constraints, that would help consolidate our students’ understanding of the theory through innovative use of the practical?

Such a move would be designed to boost performance and improve grades – so justifying the maintenance of the budget. Could we also, in our departments, look to undertake some longer-term experiments of the kind that just had no space in a rushed, assessment driven curriculum that focused on a small set of unrelated skills?

The notion is creative compliance. Rather than go down the path of least resistance and seek to deliver just the minimum, use the freedom to create a curriculum that not only delivers a wider range of skills, but also seeks to underpin the theoretical input required in the A level specification.