There is a certain amount of misinformation about science practicals coming out of the Wellcome Trust and one or two unions. Here are the facts.
Ofqual has three aims as far as science practicals are concerned.
First, they wish to increase the number of practicals students do. Do the critics of the reforms realise how little practical work is done now? At GCSE – one or two per science. At A-level – six over the two years. The reformed GCSEs will require eight (16 for Combined Science), the reformed A-level a minimum of twelve per subject.
Secondly, Ofqual wants to improve the quality of the practicals students are doing. The current norm at GCSE is ‘controlled assessment’ whereby candidates have to carry out one or two investigations from a small number set by the Awarding Organisation under highly controlled conditions. There is universal agreement among those teachers consulted by Ofqual that this assessment method is deeply flawed. It makes teachers focus on a narrow range of externally-set practicals. It is not a proper experiment of the type you might expect to experience in a laboratory. There is no room for error or learning from mistakes. It is going through the motions and is intensely dull.
Under the planned reforms the practicals will not only be more numerous, there will be less pressure to complete each one in a set time (under exam conditions) and they will be much less artificial. Because there is less time pressure and you are not penalised for ‘getting the wrong results’ both teachers and pupils will find it an altogether more worthwhile experience.
Thirdly, Ofqual wants the exams to be fair. It is not possible for an exam to be fair if 25% of the marks are awarded by the teacher observing practical work. We know from Ofqual surveys that teachers are under great pressure to give high marks. Students with very poor written paper marks usually gain high marks in the practical. It is just not possible for exam boards to supervise the marking of these practicals because of the numbers involved. Over half a million students take science GCSEs each year and there are over one million entries in all: 130,000 for each of biology, chemistry and physics; 310,000 for additional science; and 350,000 for science.
Ofqual have therefore said that the only element of the practical work that has to be assessed by the teacher is the student’s ability to select the right equipment, use the equipment sensibly, log the results intelligently – essential technical skills. The results and meaning of the experiment will not be assessed by the teacher – they will be assessed in the written exam and will be worth 15% of the marks. The manipulation/logging skills will be given a grade and there is every expectation that at A-level universities will ask for this grade when they make science offers.
But if teachers are only giving a mark for manipulation/logging skills, and this mark is represented as a separate grade and does not ‘count’ towards the main grade, is there a danger that teachers, under pressure of time and budgets, will simply drop practicals altogether? This is unlikely to happen because students will want and need the separate practical grade. But as an additional precaution, students will be required to keep a logbook of their practical work, to be made available to the exam board on request. Teachers are delighted with this idea.
As a further check, schools will be required to sign a form confirming to their exam board that each student has completed the practical activities, has used the required apparatus and developed the required techniques.
The reformed A-level science practicals have already been consulted on, the syllabuses written and approved and – unless an incoming Labour government decides to immediately recouple AS and A-levels (in which case all A-level reforms are on hold) – they will start this September. The reformed science GCSEs will be taught for the first time after September 2016.