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In his first blog post, OCR’s Chief Executive Mark Dawe talks about the new practical endorsement for science qualifications, and revokes claims that it will ‘kill’ practical science in schools and colleges.
Ofsted and the right to dissect sharks
Nobody gets to dissect a shark, make alcohol or blow things up in an A Level science practical. Because A Levels are such high stakes qualifications, any assessment of a science practical has to be based on predictable ‘experiments’ which guarantee the same outcome time and again across a massive variety of schools and colleges. Students taking these practicals learn a lot about following procedures, they learn a lot less about critical thinking, creativity and true experimentation.
The impact on teachers is not good either – if their students get bored, so do they. The volume of practical coursework in current science A levels sucks up teaching time and generates bureaucracy; the vast majority of teachers I have spoken to are delighted to see the back of all this.
And teachers understand we aren’t scrapping practicals – only the direct assessment of them. Science practicals will still be on the syllabus and OCR will require them to be taught. We are encouraging teachers to use these new freedoms, not to move away from practical science, but to do more of it. They are free to do so with imagination and flourish – and if that leads to dissecting sharks or controlled explosions, that’s all to the good.
I have heard the argument that if something isn’t assessed it won’t be taught, and therefore these reforms will kill practical science in schools and colleges. I doubt it – but we all have our part to play - the exam boards, school leadership teams, science teachers, the wider science community. I have seen a real commitment from all these parties.
Ofsted however, has remained silent on the matter. This is worrying when it is Ofsted, with its new inspection regime, that will have to hold schools accountable for offering a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum. Given that this is an issue about what is taught, not what is assessed, it is odd to find the exams regulator, Ofqual, speaking out loudly and regularly about science practicals and to hear nothing from Ofsted. Surely Ofsted is just as independent as Ofqual and won’t be swayed by the fact that Nicky Morgan has expressed doubts about the proposed changes to science A Levels. It would be more reassuring if we heard from them though.
Picture: Mark Dawe at OCR's Positive about Practical event at the Royal Institution on 6 February.