When fieldwork makes a geographer but not a biologist…

On Friday 25th October, two new consultations were opened up regarding the proposed reform of A levels and how they are assessed. Ofqual, the Office for Qualifications and Examinations Regulation, is now seeking evidence for its consultation on how AS and A levels are assessed, whilst the Department for Education (DfE) is asking for responses to the proposed content for A level subjects. Both mark important steps in the reform of A level education, which is hoped will modernise current teaching at this level and better equip students for higher education. The British Ecological Society is planning to respond to both consultations through SCORE.

A level reform was initiated by the Secretary of State for Education in March 2012. This reform has primarily focused upon making A levels more ‘linear’ and assessing students at the end of two years, as well as encouraging more involvement with universities in designing A levels in order to better equip students for higher education. By 2015, such new linear A levels will begin to be taught, with first assessment in Summer 2016. Earlier this year, exam boards and chair Professor Mark E. Smith, Vice Chancellor of Lancaster University undertook a review of A level content for 14 subjects. The report was released in September, which found that twelve subjects including Biology required changes in content. Following this, exam boards have now proposed changes to the content of these subjects, which is now being opened to consultation through the DfE. Ofqual’s consultation ‘seeks views on changes to how A levels and AS qualifications will be structured, assessed and regulated.’

Whilst science subjects have received individual content and assessment change proposals, common problems have been brought to light throughout the review process. In particular, developing the confidence and competence of students in using maths in science has been seen as a major issue that the current content of science A levels need to address. Practical skills and how they are assessed has also been an area of concern across all sciences. It has now been proposed that the conceptual and theoretical aspects of practical skills will be assessed through exams and will contribute to the overall grade awarded. The practical aspect however will not form part of the overall grade and will instead be reported separately.

In regards to ecology within the Biology subject content, there are two main topic areas where ecology has particular relevance; ‘Biodiversity’ and ‘Ecosystems’. This includes teaching students about the variety of life and how it can be classified and measured, sustainability and management of resources and the dynamics of populations and communities. Whilst it is encouraging that students will be exposed to a range of topics that involve ecology, major concern surrounds the lack of fieldwork and the fact it will not be compulsory. Although Geography will still retain fieldwork as a compulsory part of its content, this is not the case for Biology. However, given the importance of fieldwork in not only developing key skills required for higher education and careers in ecology but also in inspiring students to get involved with ecology, this is an important and significant change. Additionally, given that practical work will not be assessed in the same way and not contribute to overall grades, there is concern that fieldwork or any broader practical biology skills will become less of a priority for teachers and have less emphasis placed upon them.

The British Ecological Society is likely to be responding to both of these consultations, with particular regards to the changes in fieldwork and the content relevant to ecology. Key concerns that we will be focussing upon include:

  • Is the ecological content appropriate for progression to higher education?
  • How to ensure that good quality practical work in the lab and field provides students with the opportunities and experiences that encourage enthusiasm for further study in ecological science.

We happily welcome your feedback, and if you would like your opinions to be integrated with our response then please see the consultation documents above and let us know your thoughts. To do so, email us at: karen@britishecologicalsociety.org by the 18th November.