Save our Sciences

It is shaping up to be the new Education Secretary vs the new exam regulator Ofqual as Nicky Morgan comes out on the side of common sense in the practical science debate.

Yesterday, she publicly backed the call by many – including myself – for practical science experiments to be retained as part of GCSE and A level exams in England.

Mrs Morgan, who is shaping up to be a bit of a fan of the Sciences, rebuked Ofqual in a speech at the Politeia thinktank in London, for its plans to drop the practical element of studying the sciences, and said that dropping practical lab work from both A level and GCSE results would harm the next generation of scientists.

And in a shot across Ofqual’s bows, she warned that we must ‘never let the assessment tail wag the dog of what is taught in school’.

Her comments come just a few days before Ofqual’s consultation period on its planned changes to GCSE sciences ends on February 4. Ofqual wants to scrap controlled practical assessments at GCSE in favour of an additional written element to exams giving pupils the chance to show that they understand the practical side of various experiments.

As a chemist myself, I have been deeply concerned about these plans to reform practical science at GCSE and A level. It would be a travesty to rob future generations of the joy of experimenting in the classroom and the chance to really engage with science.

Not only that but the scientists and industry figures have warned that our skills shortage will become even direr if we deny children the chance to explore science practically and warn that we risk losing out on the creative, scientific brains of the future.

As the Guardian reports today, Mrs Morgan’s criticism will be the first major test of Ofqual’s independence. It was set up in 2010 as a non-ministerial government department.

She said: ‘I am concerned that a decision to remove practical assessment from science qualifications is in danger of holding back the next generation of scientists.

‘Like many in our scientific community, I fear that such a move could inadvertently downgrade the importance of these practical skills – leaving a generation of chemists, physicists and biologists who leave schools with excellent theoretical knowledge, but unable to perform key practical experiments which form the basis of a future research career.

‘My hope is that Ofqual and the scientific community are able to work together to find a workable solution. One that preserves high quality assessment, but at the same time ensures that what students learn in the classroom is what universities and employers agree will give budding scientists the best preparation to succeed in the future.’ Hear hear.

Ofqual retorted: ‘The development of practical skills is central to science learning, rather than something just to be assessed at the end of a course. Our proposals are designed to invigorate the hands-on learning experience of students and equip them for a future in science.’

However, Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, has admitted previously that ‘the most difficult decisions, the most finely balanced decisions, we have made here are in the individual sciences’.

Let us hope that common sense prevails not just for the future generation of scientists but for the future generation of teachers. As I have mentioned before, most schools already struggle to attract experienced science teachers because of the knock-on effect of several generations of lower standards in the teaching of sciences. Removing practical science from the curriculum could send this already teetering situation into the abyss!

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