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22/09/2014

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Practical findings rebuffed

Andrew Miller is disenchanted

The Commons Science and Technology Committee has published a report: Practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips (The government’s response is at www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmsctech/1655/165502.htm).  Both the Committee and the government want to see more school students studying science with better facilities, up-to-date teachers and interesting practical experience.

Evidence provided to us during our inquiry suggests that students are not motivated to study science. Only the most academic do triple science; practical experiments exist simply to satisfy some uninspiring experimental exam requirements; science teachers find it difficult to carve out time for subject-related professional development; science learning rarely takes place outside the classroom and the facilities both physical (laboratories) and human (technical support) are often underfinanced.

Our e-consultation with students conveyed a worryingly strong message that they saw the practical experiences as a waste of time rather than an integral aspect of learning science.  We do not dismiss the opinions of the students, but we think that science is a practical subject which must have practical outputs if it is to provide an economic bedrock for the future.  We therefore believe the government has to increase the value of practical science in the perception of teachers, school management and students.

Incentives needed

Mr Gibb, the Government Minister, told us the government does not believe that central direction is the way to fulfil its aspiration for more and better science in schools. We understand that, so we recommended that the government reorients current incentives toward encouraging the desired ends.

Schools are driven by exam results and Ofsted inspections, as these are the measures upon which they are judged.  It therefore made sense to the Committee to tweak those drivers so that good results in exams and inspections would require investment in those areas where progress was desired.  We wanted inspections to consider whether teachers are allowed enough time to ensure they are up-to-date, motivated and informed about science.  We wanted specialist science inspections to report on laboratory infrastructure and co-ordination of teachers with technical support.  We wanted exam boards to seek out better ways of assessing practical science – huge single experiment assessment does not stimulate teachers or students to see science as a practically creative exercise.  We also wanted the government to set out base standards for school laboratories if schools wanted to offer science qualifications.

Disappointing response

Our recommendations were intended more as a guide to the general direction in which we wished the government to travel rather than a detailed route map: we had hoped that the government, if it could not accept the recommendations as presented, would take inspiration from them and seek ways in which they might proactively seek the desired changes.  It was for that reason that the Committee found the response from the government hugely disappointing.  Disappointing that the government had not taken up any of the key recommendations within the report.  Disappointing that there were no indications of any government intent to take proactive action to achieve the aims to which they claim to aspire.

For example, examinations are a strong driver for both schools and students, but the government provided us with no confidence that they will give Ofqual strong direction in what they want science exams to deliver with regard to practical science skills.

The Committee does not believe that the devolution of budgets to schools will inevitably result in poorer science experiences for students, but there are risks that the government needs to address.  Science is an expensive subject relative to arts subjects and we would like the government to demonstrate how it will put in place the drivers necessary to encourage the provision of quality science education.

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Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller MP is Chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee
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