Science A-Level shake-up could render practicals useless, claims leading academic


A shake-up of A-Level science may lead to schools and colleges concluding practical experiments are irrelevant to getting into university, according to the former head of the National Science Learning Centre.

In a lecture at Cambridge University, Sir John Holman, now senior adviser to the Wellcome Trust and Gatsby Foundation, warned this could follow the decision to stop counting marks from practical experiments towards A-Level grades. Instead, students will be given a separate pass/fail on how they have conducted experiments.

Sir John, speaking at a seminar organised by Cambridge Assessment, warned science experiments could be scrapped by schools, adding: “I think schools and colleges will conclude [practical science] is irrelevant for university.” 

“There’s a risk here. We don’t know what’s going to happen; it could be good, it could be bad.”

He cited research which showed that 81 per cent of science undergraduates believed the proposals would lead to a deterioration in practical work - with only eight per cent insisting they would encourage better practical work.

He coupled that with research within universities which showed that 97 per cent of staff in science departments believe the present crop of undergraduates were not well equipped in the necessary laboratory skills, with 57 per cent saying standards had declined in the past five years.

Many were having to adapt their courses because of the students’ lack of practical skills upon entry.

Comments included “if practical coursework is not assessed as part of the A-level, then schools may not see the value in teaching it as it is expensive to run, so we risk students applying to university without having had practical experience” from Imperial College. It added:  “Students are likely to come to university having been taught, not how to do practical work, but how to avoid it.”

The University of York added: “There is a real danger that moving the practical component out of the A-Level mark will mean that practical work will be downgraded.”

One of the problems identified by Sir John was that under the pressure of accountability schools were coaching pupils “within an inch of their lives as to how to pass exams”. 

As a result, the pressure to award high practical grades in current assessments was “almost irresistible”. This was one of the reasons given by exams regulator Ofqual for suggesting the change.

Research showed 75 per cent of science pupils took part in practical experiments either once a week or less.

Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, who was present at the seminar, admitted the science decision was one of the most difficult the regulator had faced in carrying out its review of A-Levels.

Sir John acknowledged there was a chance the changes could lead to a wider range of practical work being carried out in schools as teachers were released from the “shackles” of having to assess it for an exam grade but he added: “History suggests we should be cautious.”

The ideal, he said, would be for an extended individual practical piece of work to be marked by the teacher and moderated within a group of schools.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "The new A-Level content we have published will mean practical work play a far bigger part in students' biology, chemistry and physics courses in future.

"At the moment some students aren't directly assessed in any practical work, but in future all students must be assessed on at least 12 practical experiments. This will ensure all A-Level students develop the experimental and practical skills essential for further study."