Mary Whitehouse considers what the results of Ofqual's consultation on GCSE science practical assessment mean for teachers and students

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Given some of the comments made over the last week or so about practical work in school science, anyone who didn’t read beyond the headlines might think that Ofqual had said that practical work was no longer an essential part of science education. Nothing could be further from the truth.

On 3 March, the UK exam regulator released the results of its consultation (pdf) on practical assessment of GCSE science qualifications. The new approach scraps direct assessment of practical work in favour of assessing knowledge of lab techniques in the final written exam.

In the foreword to the consultation document (pdf) Ofqual stated:

“We want science GCSEs that encourage a wide range of practical science teaching over the period of study, so that students’ experience of practical science work is positive, and beneficial.” (p2)

The outcomes of the consultation show that the majority of the 172 respondents supported Ofqual’s proposals. I was pleased to see almost 70% of the respondents were teachers, and they were more broadly supportive of the proposals. They agreed that if practical work is assessed indirectly in examinations, teachers will ensure it continues to be part of science teaching. 

Do we really need direct assessment?

There are a number of arguments being made in favour of direct assessment, these include:

  • If practical skills are not shown to contribute towards a qualification it signifies that they are not valued.
  • A qualification in science that does not include an element of practical assessment is not assessing the whole domain.
  • If practical skills are not assessed they will not be taught, and the experience of students studying science will be poorer.

There may be some merit in the first two arguments, but I would counter by suggesting that if the assessment is not reliable it adds nothing, and in fact devalues the qualification. Until a robust way is found to directly assess the practical skills of large cohorts of students, it is better to trust teachers to deliver the science curriculum and use indirect assessment of practical work in exams.

In response to the third argument I would suggest that this is disrespectful to science teachers. The vast majority of teachers want to do practical work. Many teachers will soon be doing a wider range of practicals than they currently are. The proposals make it clear that schools are expected to provide students with opportunities to use a range of apparatus, experience a variety of techniques, and carry out a range of experiments in each subject. Currently students may only experience the single experiment required for controlled assessment – the new system has the potential provide a much richer experience. 

So what happens next?

Some members of the science community have been vociferous in declaring that practical work is an essential component of science teaching. They now need to support science teachers who want to do more practical work in school. They should make it clear to the Department for Education (DfE) that practical work requires apparatus. If the Secretary of State is serious in saying “the opportunity to perform practicals is a crucial part of the teaching of science,” (pdf) then the DfE must provide schools with the funding to enable them to buy the kit needed. Officials should begin by reading the SCORE report (pdf).

The science community must also enable science teachers to engage in professional development to support pedagogically sound practical work. A first step might be to reboot the Getting Practical website and encourage teachers to engage with the ideas outlined by Robin Millar in Analysing Practical Science Activities to Assess and Improve Their Effectiveness.

And finally, it is the responsibility of Ofqual and the awarding organisations to devise examination questions that will differentiate between students who can draw on their practical work to answer the questions and those who have perhaps only read about the activity or watched a video.

Mary Whitehouse is a member of the University of York Science Education Group and has a keen interest in the relationship between assessment and teaching

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