Practical work is the essence of science, and surely learning science without doing experiments is like studying literature without reading books. But does practical work become distorted when it contributes towards final grades?
As part of its efforts to stimulate debate on matters at the heart of education and training, the Cambridge Assessment Network debated the controversial subject of the role and place of practical learning.
Speaking to a large and appreciative audience, Professor Sir John Holman of the University of York expressed his fears over reforms to A Level Science which mean students' practical work will be assessed by a written examination and awarded a pass or fail mark instead of counting towards the final grade.
"I think schools and colleges will conclude [practical science] is irrelevant for university, and history suggests we should be cautious. There's a risk here. We don't know what's going to happen; it could be good, it could be bad," he said.
Now a senior adviser to the Wellcome Trust and Gatsby Foundation, Sir John cited research within universities which showed that 97 per cent of staff from science departments felt new undergraduates were inadequately equipped with the necessary laboratory skills, with 57 per cent agreeing that practical skills have declined in past five years.
Sir John's findings resonated with many of the university and school representatives in the audience. "The aims of practical science are not being met at schools," said Professor Paul Black of King's College London at an interview after the event. Dr Stuart Miller, Head of Science at Wisbech Grammar School, agreed: "Is [the assessment of practical work] doing what it's supposed to do, preparing scientists? No, it manifestly isn't. The fact that league tables very much drive how schools perform and what teachers do means that practical assessment is not fit for purpose."
Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment's Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, who introduced Sir John with a short speech of his own, said that practical work was vital and it should remain an important outcome of the education system, but that the current system put teachers in an untenable position.
"Teachers are expected to achieve annual improvements in grade outcomes, while acting as awarding body proxies regarding consistent, fair marking," he said.
Taking questions from the audience after the event, Glenys Stacey, Chief Regulator at Ofqual, made a powerful case for the changes to A Level sciences which will now require students to carry out a minimum of 12 practical activities across a two year course.
"The new A Level sciences will give teachers the opportunity to carry out much more practical work than they do now. They will be able to help students develop those vital skills across a range of activities and experiments.
"It's about liberating teachers and students from the shackles of the current arrangements, getting them into the laboratory, doing benchwork and doing it enthusiastically. That's what we want." Ms Stacey said.
Sharing her views at a round-table interview, Nicole Morgan of the Royal Society of Chemistry agreed with the need for change but added: "What there is a degree of dispute about is the pace of the change, the decoupling of the practical mark from the main grade and a fear that 12 practical experiments may in some cases become the maximum rather than the minimum."
But a number of teachers in the audience were optimistic about the changes, with one, Dr Miller, saying: "I think the biggest change will be that you have two years to cover a practical course, not one. 12 practicals in two years, that's what's going to free everything up." said Dr Miller.
The talk concluded that more discussion is needed between the professional community, the awarding bodies and the Regulator, in order to inform future changes.
Exclusive round-table interviews with experts from Cambridge Assessment – Dr Steven Evans, Assistant Head of GCSE and A Level Reform at OCR; Frances Wilson, Research Officer at Cambridge Assessment; Glenys Stacey, Chief Regulator at Ofqual; Paul Black, Emeritus Professor of Science Education at King's College London; Dr Stuart Miller; Head of Science at Wisbech Grammar School; and Nicole Morgan, Schools and Colleges Manager at Royal Society of Chemistry, are available below.
Continue the #PracticalScience debate with @Cam_Assessment