How well is practical science resourced in schools?

Practical work is a vital part of scientific teaching and learning. By giving students the opportunity to carry out experiments and assess evidence, the use of practical work in science enables transferable skills to be developed. It also gives experience of the type of work all scientific theory and knowledge development is based on. The importance of evidence is emphasised, and can be extrapolated to use in a wider context. For students to experience this, practical work needs to be properly resourced, with access to the correct equipment and facilities. Over the past year, research into the levels of resources available in schools has been carried out. Reports released yesterday by SCORE highlight the issues of the availability of practical science resources in schools across England.

The surveys were carried out by SCORE (Scientific Community Representing Education), a collaboration of leading science organisations of which the BES is a member. Involving teachers from nearly 500 secondary schools and sixth form colleges and 400 primary schools, the data seek to represent all types of school across all areas in the UK. Resources available in schools were compared to benchmark levels set by SCORE that provide guidance on what levels of resourcing are required for a well-rounded science education.

One of the main findings of the surveys is the levels and variation in spending on sciences across all schools. For primary schools, an average of £2.89 was spent per student on sciences in 2011/12. For state-funded secondary schools and sixth form colleges, the average science spend was £8.81 per student. These figures, however, do not show the huge range in spending across schools. In primary schools, spending on science ranged from £0.04 to £19.08 per student, and in secondary schools, this range spanned £0.75 to £31.25. The differences between schools are notable, and highlight the severe lack of funding for science in many.

The figures above show overall spending on science, making the levels of spending for practical science even lower than this. In state-funded secondary schools, practical science equipment and consumables account for just 39% of spending seen above. In 80% of secondary schools, and 75% of primary schools, there is no formal allocation of the science budget to practical work. These limited budgets for practical science work have, in part, contributed to a worrying lack of sufficient equipment for basic practical science work in many schools. On average, state-funded secondary schools have just 70% of the equipment and consumables needed to teach all sciences. In primary schools, this figure is even lower; the average school has 46% of the equipment in sufficient quantities needed to teach science.

Out of all sciences, biology suffers most from a lack of equipment for practical work. At pre-16, 37% of schools do not have access to practical equipment in sufficient quantities or quality. This rises to 44% for post-16. Ecology takes a huge hit within this – nearly 50% of schools do not have sufficient ecological sampling equipment, and 45% do not have access to water baths for use in small groups.

Direct funding issues through static reduced budgets are just one of the drivers behind these low resource levels in schools. Others, such as curriculum changes and controlled assessments play a more indirect role. Unpredictability with curriculum changes lead schools to use a large portion of their budget for updating textbooks, or spend large amounts of money on photocopying if they are not able to buy books upfront. Frequent changes also lead to an inability for schools and teachers to plan ahead and make large, one-off equipment purchases.

It is not just equipment and consumables that were found to be lacking, however. Classroom and laboratory facilities are also mostly not adequate, and a lack of good technician support was shown to limit practical work in secondary schools.

At secondary level, nearly 50% of schools reported difficulty in accessing outside learning environments. For biology these include ponds, areas with trees or hedges, and grassland. Outdoor habitats are essential for ecology, and help stimulate interest and curiousity about the natural world. Limited access to outdoor areas in schools is especially concerning given the recent removal of protection over these areas by Government. Previously, schools were mandated to provide from 5000 to 35000 m2 of outdoor space for students, depending on the size of the school. This protection was removed in July last year, to enable schools to maximise capacities, or raise funds if required. Now, legislation states that ‘suitable outdoor space must be provide in order to enable a) physical education to be provided to pupils in accordance with the school curriculum; and b) pupils to play outside.’ The limited outdoor learning areas in schools highlighted by SCORE’s reports are therefore at risk of being diminished even further, pushing the practical learning facilities of some schools away from SCORE’s benchmarks.

The use of SCORE’s benchmarks as a minimum starting point for adequate practical science resources in schools is highlighted throughout their reports. SCORE recommends that these are used to determine the resourcing needs for schools, and that the adequate resourcing of practical science should form part of Ofsted inspections for both primary and secondary schools. For secondary schools and sixth form colleges specifically, SCORE urges the Department for Education to build on the report to identify the number of schools who do and do not meet the benchmarks for practical science resourcing, and subsequently propose remedial action across all schools.

What do you think? Do these findings reflect your experiences? How can SCORE and DfE build on this?