Practical science plans ‘dangerous’


Published: Friday 9th January 2015 by The News Editor

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Universities will be forced to devote time to teaching students how to conduct experiments if plans to separate practical science results from GCSE and A-level grades go ahead, a former top civil servant is warning.

The move – announced by exams regulator Ofqual as part of major reforms to the exams system – sends out a message that “hard-nosed practical skills” are not as highly valued as learning scientific theory, according to Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of Reading University.

He suggests that the proposals are a “highly dangerous experiment” that come from failing to listen to informed opinion and build support for an idea.

The comments come in a wide-ranging speech to the Association of Science Education’s (ASE) annual conference being held at Reading University.

Sir David, who previously served as Ofsted chief and permanent secretary at the Department for Education, will also raise concerns that education policy in the UK is still driven by five-year election cycles and “ministerial whims”.

He argues for a new independent body to be set up to advise on the curriculum and assessment and put an end to the “ridiculous situation” of some ministers feeling compelled to sit in their offices drafting content for maths and science lessons.

And he suggests that it is time to ditch an out-of-date A-level system in favour of a new Baccalaureate-style exam that means sixth-formers take a broad range of subjects.

“Failing to build consensus results in the sort of highly dangerous experiment by Ofqual and ministers to separate the grade for assessed practical work from the main grades at A-level and GCSE science,” Sir David will tell the conference.

“It sends out a message that hard-nosed practical skills are not valued equally to theory.

“It risks diverting cash from science department budgets for equipment, technicians and training.

“And I fear universities will be forced to spend more time in the first year getting students up to speed with basic lab experience, with a knock-on effect on the flow of postgraduates, PhD students and senior academics in future.

“On top of perennial concerns from admissions tutors about science undergraduates lacking pure and applied mathematical knowledge and good basic writing skills, the proposals must be revisited.”

Under Ofqual proposals announced last month, teenagers’ practical work would be assessed separately and not form part of overall grades in GCSE science subjects.

The regulator, who previously launched similar plans for A-level, has argued that science practicals at GCSE are “highly predictable”, focusing on a narrow range of tests and that basing part of new science exams on questions that forced students to have first-hand knowledge of experiments was a better alternative.

Sir David, who is president of the ASE, goes on to say that a “short-sighted” focus on information and communication technology (ICT) and buying in computer hardware that is quickly out of date had resulted in a “lost generation of programmers”.

“Too many now put their faith in switching computers on and off at the plug to solve every problem,” he says.

“And this yawning skills gap means that increasingly our first year programming courses spend too much time getting young people up to speed on the basics.”

The university chief calls for a “strong, permanent” advisory body for curriculum and assessment.

“I worry, as many others do, about education policy being constantly at the behest of five-year electoral cycles and ministerial whims.”

There is a move towards independent commissions in areas such as transport and energy, he says and the same should apply to education to prevent going “back to square one in schools policy after every single election”.

“Teachers need to be accountable but also have stability and consistency,” he says.

“You need to be insulated from the day-to-day vagaries of the political system.

“Because teaching practice, knowledge and skills evolve faster and more organically than Whitehall can possibly direct.

“That means we can end the ridiculous situation where some ministers feel compelled to sit in their offices drafting maths and science curricula.

“Particularly ridiculous if they have never taught a class of children or young people in their life.”

Calling for a new baccalaureate exams system, Sir David says: “The economy and society is changing out of all recognition – and yet we still have an out-of-date system, when the UK can least afford it.

“A broader and deeper curriculum and exam system must be our ambition.”

A decade ago, ministers “bottled” creating such a system because they were scared of being seen as weak on standards, he claims.

“We cannot make the same mistake again.”

A Government source said: “It’s disappointing to hear a bureaucrat calling for more powers to be taken out of the democratic decision-making process.

“We are confident, however, that most parents would agree that, when it comes to what their children learn in school, decisions should be taken by people who are answerable to the electorate rather than by unaccountable quangos, however worthy they believe themselves to be.

“This Government’s plan for education has resulted in more children learning to read more effectively through our reform to phonics teaching; spelling, punctuation and grammar is now an explicit requirement of the curriculum; primary school children are expected to know their multiplication tables by heart by the age of nine.

“More students are studying a foreign language and earlier, and we have introduced coding into the curriculum.

“We have ensured that the curriculum is knowledge-rich and equips children for life in modern Britain.”

Published: Friday 9th January 2015 by The News Editor

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