How ‘practical’ are the new Science A-level reforms? The HOC Science and Technology Committee investigate

Earlier this week, the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee held a meeting to consider the new science A-level reforms which will be implemented next year.  In late April, the Department for Education (DfE) and the Office of Qualifications and Examination Regulations (Ofqual), confirmed the changes will go ahead, which will see a separation of marks for practical science from core A-level grades. This means the entire Biology A-level grade will only comprise assessment of a student’s knowledge and understanding of scientific content, with the practical skills component of the A-level simply being stated as either a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ for a minimum of 12 practicals.

On Monday 12th May, key actors from the education and scientific communities were called for questioning before MPs including Committee Chair Andrew Miller, and Jim Dowd. Concerns regarding the potential long term impacts of these reforms were raised by representatives from Science Community Representing Education (SCORE), Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), UK Deans of Science, and Association of School and College Leaders. Whilst the overall consensus was changes are necessary to enhance the quality of science A-level grades, the following issues were raised as matters of urgency before nationwide implementation of the reforms next spring.

  •  Reforms risk students becoming unmotivated; practicals ensure learning and development by an ongoing process of discovery which is facilitated by the student’s extended project – it keeps students enthused and is why they regard Biology as the most interesting of the three sciences.
  • It is questionable how the reformed A-levels would stretch the most able student. How will a written exam accurately measure a student’s practical competency in a laboratory?
  • Decoupling the theoretical and practical content could lead to the diversion of funding away from practical and laboratory resources. There are already widespread variations in funding for practical work in schools across the UK, and the changes are likely to affect state schools in disadvantaged areas the most.
  • No pilot scheme has been conducted yet to test the new system; detailed research and evaluation is necessary to accurately measure how effective it will be.
  • It is highly likely changes will have a negative impact in higher education. The reforms will see a move away from the extended project, used by the International Baccalaureate programmes and favoured highly by universities. It means a student could potentially go to university with an ‘A’ grade in Biology, having failed all 12 practicals. This has long term implications on the value of industry, and skills sought by employers, all of which is not entirely compatible with the government’s heavy investment in STEM careers.

Sarah Main, Chief Executive Officer at CaSE strongly urged Ofqual and the DfE to review the speed of implementation or risk widespread impacts. A pilot scheme would test its credibility, and should focus on measuring the; quality of the student experience, support required for teachers, reliability of assessment criteria and procedures, and finally address the issue of how the practicals would be graded.  Consequently, she felt that issues highlighted by the scientific community in response to the two consultations, were not addressed.

On the other hand, Glenys Stacy, Chief Regulator of Ofqual, assured that the reforms were the best way forward to ensure changes in assessment matched the changes in the new curriculum, which emphasised more testing by examination. Glenys stressed the changes would produce valid and reliable educational outcomes. The reforms will require all 12 practicals to be recorded with a move towards evidence based reporting, with Dennis Opposs, the Director of Standards at Ofqual emphasising this identifies how it is not entirely a ‘decoupling’ of theoretical and practical content.

Interestingly, Glenys reported that following the two consultations in October, there was some considerable backing from teachers for the ways in which A-levels are assessed. The reforms are a practical solution to continue promoting science, and improving manageability in schools. Glenys stated that the changes did also take into account some recommendations which include using a logbook.

Ofqual admitted to not seeking ministerial advice on the reforms, highlighting it’s independent position to design and propose practical decisions. Whilst they admitted to not having completed a pilot, and had few international comparisons to draw upon, there are plans to carry out trials during autumn 2015 to review the marking criteria and operational requirements, to refine the reforms ahead of the roll-out date, if necessary. Ongoing feedback will be obtained from science teachers, Ofsted and universities to measure educational outcomes comprehensively.

Elizabeth Truss, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education Childcare reiterated that STEM related subjects remain a key priority of the UK government, as seen through the recent launch of the YourLife campaign. However, with reports from universities claiming that students are arriving without the relevant practical experience, it is evident changes were needed and Ofqual, are ultimately responsible for making relevant decisions to ensure reliability and validity in practicals.  Ms Truss went to confirm that she fully supported Ofqual but also had to admit that the DfE did not have a Chief Scientific Advisor to comment on the proposals or that she had discussed the proposals with Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor.  She was strongly recommended to do so considering the lack of support for the proposals by the wider scientific community.

The British Ecological Society stays abreast of, and plays an integral role in education policy. We responded to the two consultations which were first opened up by DfE and Ofqual in October 2013 through SCORE and the Association for Science Education’s Outdoor Science Working Group. At the Society, we encourage inter-disciplinary collaboration between scientific and non-scientific organisations to ensure people, at all stages in their academic and professional careers are best placed with the essential knowledge and skills required in their respective scientific field. We are committed to sharing our expertise to advise on matters like these, and are very keen to hear your feedback on these reforms too! Share your opinions on this by tweeting us at @BES_careers.

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