Ten benchmarks to improving practical science education

Written by: Dr Matthew Hickman | Published:
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A report from the Gatsby Foundation outlines 10 keys to improve practical science education. Dr Matthew Hickman explains

The Gatsby Foundation has published its new report, Good Practical Science, outlining 10 benchmarks to transform practical science education in England.

Led by Sir John Holman and gauging the status of practical science at more than 400 secondary schools in England, the report will help schools to support practical science as a fundamental part of high-quality science education.

At the heart of science is the need to test questions and through experimentation. Science can never rely on the primacy of facts. If Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie and Barbara McClintock had relied only on what they “knew”, they would never have advanced our knowledge of the structure of DNA, radiation, and genetics, respectively.

Careful observation, hands-on practical skills and well-designed experiments were absolutely vital in putting their factual knowledge to good use. Scientific facts must never be an end in themselves, but a means to an end – the practical application of knowledge.

Arguably, at a time when facts have never been easier to access, we should be focusing more on supporting students to apply their knowledge, including carrying out experiments.

However, just as they need to learn those facts, students also need to learn how to do experiments.

And like learning facts, learning the practical skills necessary to do experiments can take time. It relies on expert teachers and good supporting resources – but instead of whiteboards and textbooks, the resources are laboratories, scientific equipment and skilled technicians.

Gatsby’s Good Practical Science report highlights the critical role of practical work in science education. It sets out five reasons to do practical science, pointing to the role that practical work plays in integrating factual knowledge, technical knowledge and practical skills. UK schools are well-positioned to do practical work, given their good facilities, extensive technical support and the means to access high-quality professional development for teachers.

The report’s 10 benchmarks are particularly useful as they allow schools to compare themselves against world-class standards assessed in countries such as Finland, Germany and Singapore. These will help schools to identify where they are doing well and where they might need to focus additional resources. The 10 benchmarks are:

  1. Planned practical science
  2. Purposeful practical science
  3. Expert teachers
  4. Frequent and varied practical science
  5. Laboratory facilities and equipment
  6. Technical support
  7. Real experiments, virtual enhancements
  8. Investigative projects
  9. A balanced approach to risk
  10. Assessment fit for purpose

Benchmark one (planned practical science), benchmark three (expert teachers) and benchmark six (technical support) seem particularly important in enabling high-quality practical science teaching.

Of the 10 per cent of English schools surveyed to date, none reached more than eight of the benchmarks. In particular, most UK schools struggle to reach benchmark four – frequent and varied practical science (the aim being to have practical science activities in at least half of all science lessons).

This is reflected in the Wellcome Trust’s research from the Science Education Tracker (see further information), which shows that nearly one-third of GCSE students in England report doing hands-on practical science lessons less than once a month.

There is also an issue of equity at stake here: Results from the Science Education Tracker showed that 54 per cent of students at schools in the least deprived areas of England do practical science lessons at least once a fortnight, compared to 36 per cent of students from the most deprived areas. Fundamentally, the location of your school should not influence how you learn science.

Most science teachers recognise the value of doing practical lessons. However, we also recognise that doing practical lessons can take some teachers outside their comfort zone. Happily, Gatsby’s report highlights the wealth of support available. This includes professional development (for example via STEM Learning), safety advice (for example via CLEAPSS) and, for the more adventurous, support to do original research projects by joining the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), or helping students do a science project for their Extended Project Qualification (see further information for some useful links).

Clearly, the government, Ofsted and Ofqual all have central roles to play in supporting schools to do regular high-quality practical science, for example by:

  • Recruiting and retaining appropriately skilled science teachers, and supporting their professional development.
  • Ensuring assessment of practical skills is fit-for-purpose.
  • Considering the role of projects in the curriculum.

In Wellcome’s recent review of Ofsted inspections, we found that fewer than five per cent of secondary school inspections made reference to practical science. This is concerning and we would encourage Ofsted to think more about how they might support schools in the teaching of practical science. Gatsby’s benchmarks are an obvious starting point.

Wellcome and Gatsby work closely together on practical science, and we are pleased to be collaborating with them on other projects:

  • With the Royal Society, we are keen to explore how best to make assessment of practical skills fit-for-purpose.
  • Alongside the Nuffield Foundation, we are monitoring how recent changes to qualifications are affecting practical science teaching

Gatsby’s report is a useful and timely boost to practical science teaching in England. Wellcome recommends that teachers, school leaders and policy-makers use it to continuously improve the quality of practical science in England.

  • Dr Matthew Hickman is programmes manager for science learning at the Wellcome Trust charitable foundation.

Further information


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