Paul reports back from his first experience of the national Association for Science Educators conference


The room seems vaguely familiar, if only because it's so featureless. Magnolia walls, strip lighting, worn carpet patched over with functional desks and chairs. Countless other rooms just like this populate universities all over the country, but this room at the University of Reading is linked in my mind with one just like it in Glasgow. Two projector screens at one end remind the crowded room of the names of the people at the front that I can't see from my seat in the corner. Over the course of this debate I've become quite adept at linking those names with the sound of their owners' voices.

When I finally put my finger on why I'm feeling mildly panicked, the mental connection I've made between this makeshift debate chamber and that small exam hall at the University of Strathclyde seems apt. The occupants of the two rooms were chiefly concerned with one thing. Assessment.

Practically useful?

This is my first time attending the national Association for Science Education (ASE) conference. Despite many years spent on the learning side of science education, I'm very new to the teaching side. Science teachers from across the country as well as those, like me, peripherally involved in science education have met up in the first proper week in January to exchange ideas, take the pulse of the collective, and, yes, have a bit of a moan.

Looking through the conference programme before I arrived, I felt very much out of my depth. I had no idea what the dizzying array of pedagogical concepts, titles of policies or innumerable abbreviated names of organisations mean. If I'm honest, I still don't.

But in the three days I've spent here, one theme has cropped up time and time again: the assessment of practical work. In particular, the new practical endorsement requirements for A-level science coming into effect for teaching from September this year.

Early last year Ofqual scrapped the practical exam for A-level students, replacing it with an ongoing assessment of practical work. Initial reaction from the education community to the new system was hostile. Many believed it amounted to a devaluation of practical work in learning, edging science education closer to the memorising of content and away from hands-on, inquisitive practice.

Now, in this debate with the great and the good of science teaching in the UK, there's a palpable sense of coming to terms with the new regime. Most of the anxiety around whether or not schools will value the teaching of practical science is being replaced with concerns over the emphasis of the new assessment. Does the new system assess only what is easy to assess rather than what is valuable? Most of the room seems to think so. But there are several voices pointing out that, while arguably not ideal, the new system can't be worse than the old.

The discussion is brought to a close by Ned Prideaux, a secondary physics teacher, summing up the mood, 'The system isn’t going to change, all I can do is make it work in my classroom.'

So ... what do you teach?

The next day, while David Bell gives a keynote address on the perils of political interference in education – a speech that everyone has already read in the day's papers – glad to see a free hour on my calendar, I retreat to the crowded campus cafe to meet a friend.

Andy is a chemistry teacher and has been attending this conference for several years. I hope to spend the duration of a disappointing coffee asking mundane questions about the conference and what being here means to a teacher, desperate to build some context around the waterfall of new information I'm attempting to process.

He tells me how it's hard to get here. For him to take time out of school, especially the first week of the new term, to arrange for all his classes to do practice papers, to convince his head of the value of the conference to his work.

So he must find it valuable, to go to all that effort and give up a Saturday to be here.

Andy tells me his two reasons, the official and unofficial. His official line, the one to convince his head to let him skip classes, is his need to learn about the changes to the A-level examinations that take effect from September. The unofficial, real reason Andy is here is the five minutes before each session, the few moments he has to chat to the person next to him.

'Really, I just want to talk to other teachers.'

I find this sentiment echoed when I speak with Christine Harrison, the chair of the ASE, about what she hopes teachers find valuable at this event.

'The main thing is the opportunity to network, with teachers and others in education. It's a valuable resource that doesn't just support the teacher, but enriches their school as well.'

It seems such a simple thing. Among all the workshops, the pedagogy and CPD, the humble and essential reason to be here – to check in with your peers. I haven’t been a teacher, but I've learned enough about their work to know that it can be very isolating. Amid parliamentary decrees, changes to curricula and exams, inspections and the ever-present demand for results, this is where a science teacher goes just to check that we're all on the same page. Well, near the same page, at least.

That's what was happening in the packed-out debate, and has been happening in snatched introductions and conversations all over the university campus for the past three days.

And I wonder ... why don't we do this for more than three days a year?