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

 

Education Editor

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windo...

Guru Careers: Product Training Specialist / Software Trainer

£25 - 32,500K (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Produ...

Recruitment Genius: Unqualified NVQ Assessors - Health, Social Care & Management

£16000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence