Ofqual, the examination regulator for England and Northern Ireland, yesterday announced a new approach to GCSE science which will effectively see written exams usurp controlled practical science assessments.
On confirming its new approach, Ofqual said it will now plan to consult on the rules and guidance for GCSEs in biology, chemistry, physics and combined science.
Exam boards will design the new specifications for these GCSEs against these rules. The aim is to have these specifications available to schools from autumn 2015, the regulator said.
However, practical work is not being removed from the classroom entirely, it will just no longer form an explicit part of the examination process.
“Yesterday’s announcement forms part of a wider issue of qualifications reform which is currently sweeping through much of the UK
Essentially, under the new guidelines each exam board will have to specify a minimum number of practical activities that students must complete which must be set no lower than eight in each individual science and 16 for combined science, Ofqual said.
The practical work carried out throughout the school year(s) will be assessed via written exam.
“We have consulted widely and have identified a new approach to the assessment of practical science that will liberate teachers to offer a wider variety of classroom experimentation and promote effective student progression to further study or employment,” said Ofqual chief regulator Glenys Stacey.
According to Ofqual’s consultation figures, 80% of respondents agreed with its proposal to assess practical work via written exam questions.
However, 25% of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed that science GCSE students will be more likely to be given opportunities to undertake a wide and varied range of practical work if such work is focused on teaching and learning and is not itself assessed.
It’d be safe to assume many of those were from the science and engineering community.
Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) acting director Naomi Weir responded to yesterday’s announcement suggesting it was “really disappointing” that Ofqual had not listened to the science and engineering community and had instead gone ahead with its proposals to remove practical assessment from GCSEs.
“Past experience tells us that even with the best of intentions there is a real danger that the resources for, and teaching of practical work in science will suffer if it isn’t examined,” Weir said.
“We need assurance that Ofqual will monitor the impact of these changes to mitigate any negative impacts and inform future policy.”
In an earlier response, CaSE called on Ofqual to drop its now sanctioned proposals, suggesting the regulator Ofqual should “wait until the impact of recent reforms to AS and A-levels can be accurately assessed before moving ahead with reforms at GCSE, especially as science GCSEs are experienced by the majority of students, and changes at this level would therefore have far greater reach”.
Both CaSE and Weir’s responses are perfectly valid, and they certainly have far more clout than my opinion.
However, Ofqual’s decision doesn’t feel like a big mistake, or an error of judgement.
Students will still have the opportunity to take part in practical work.
Considering that a typical school year lasts approximately 36 weeks, 16 practical activities works out as roughly one practical activity every fortnight.
It’s more than I ever remember doing at school.
Unfortunately, however, yesterday’s announcement forms part of a wider issue of qualifications reform which is currently sweeping through much of the UK.
In our sister publication, Process Engineering, we have spoken at length about the current engineering crisis and what it might mean to lose such a subject from the national curriculum.
The cynics among us could be forgiven for thinking that yesterday’s announcement is the first in a long line of ’educational reforms’ which could see some of our most valuable subjects kicked into touch.