By Adrian Fenton, Head of Education, British Science Association

Whether a scientist or not, we all have memories of our school practical work.

I recently showed colleagues around the Faraday museum, and their highlight was seeing the actual lab where Faraday experimented with magnetism and electricity. Meanwhile practicals sparked many career scientists’ fascination with science, and are a memorable hands-on experience for people across the country.
This is why we believe practical work is at the heart of science, with experimental discoveries having proved vital in shaping Britain’s science community, industry and heritage. We think there’s truth in the proverb, “Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand,” captures the key value of participatory teaching and learning methodologies.
I would think that Ofqual agree with these sentiments, but how practical work is assessed is currently in question. The British Science Association is concerned by the latest proposals, which would replace practical assessments with written exams. Students would be tested through questions about practicals, as opposed to being graded for actually carrying them out. The BSA believes in a society in which science is at the heart of culture – a vision that an emphasis on practical skills helps to realise.
We are concerned that the proposed changes could be detrimental. We agree that the current approach is not fit for purpose, but we feel this proposal is rushed, lacking in detail and open to misinterpretation.
We are particularly concerned about the removal of the requirement for teachers to directly assess each student and suggest reviewing this decision. There is a resourcing issue, which cannot be ignored, but novel assessment methods or technologies such as video-conferencing could aid recording and sharing students’ progress and address the issues cited of distance and travel costs.
Direct assessment on a large scale is hard, but it is possible. For the past 28 years the BSA has reached out to secondary school students through its CREST Awards programme. Last year, 33,000 awards were issued to students for an eclectic mix of science experiments, presentations and projects.

Ofqual should hold a longer period of investigation to assess the risks of the proposed changes before rolling them out to GCSEs. As well as seeking recommendations from education experts and subject specialist organisations on the assessment methods, engaging a broad group of stakeholders on the issue would allow the needs of employers, educators and citizens outside science to be taken into account.

We’ve found that involving the public makes for better policy decisions, through our partnership with Sciencewise, the UK’s national centre for public dialogue on Sci-Tech issues. Not forgetting that young people have valued opinions too, we have worked with our CREST Youth Panel to gain their views on a number of science education related topics, feeding into reports presented to ministers and  representing young people at research based conferences. We think including those voices would help Ofqual reach the best solution.
The BSA believes that practical science is an essential component in enabling young people to engage with, and gain a greater understanding of science. Therefore, we believe that any changes should not be hastily implemented without the opportunity for reviewing the potential implications with experts or piloting potential approaches.
At a time when the British Government is placing ever great emphasis on the importance of science to British life, it seems ill-considered to be proposing such dramatic and potentially detrimental changes to such a key part of science assessment. 


You can read the BSA's response to Ofqual's consultation here.