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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Early Years Teachers Required

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Early Years Teachers ...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Qualified Early Years Teachers Required

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualifed Early Years ...

Do you want to work in Education?

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energetic gradu...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little