Ten benchmarks for high-quality practical science

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Practical science education is at risk because of the constraints of the accountability system and problems with teacher expertise, among other reasons.

Drawing on research and international best practice, a new report has published 10 benchmarks to transform practical science education in secondary schools.

However, the same report warns that only six per cent of secondary schools are currently achieving at least five of these benchmarks. A third of schools do not achieve any of the benchmarks at all.

The report – Good Practical Science – has been published by the Gatsby Foundation with the research work having been led by Sir John Holman, emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of York. The 10 benchmarks are:

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

The report draws on the work of 400 secondary schools as well as visits to witness science education in six other countries including Finland, Germany and Singapore.

It finds that schools in England have good facilities for teaching practical science but that lesson time is not being given over to carrying out experiments.

Part of the blame lies with the accountability system, which it says does much to shape the attitude and behaviour of teachers.

The report states: “Teaching in England is remarkable for the powerful accountability system (Ofsted and published performance tables) within which it takes place – strikingly so when compared with the overseas countries we visited. The combination of accountability and a heavy emphasis on assessment for national qualifications means that the behaviour of teachers, and the attitudes of students, are strongly shaped by assessment requirements.”

There is also a challenge with teacher supply and training, the report warns. It finds that 28 per cent of schools have at least one A level science teacher without a post-A level science qualification, while an estimated 69 per cent of schools have at least one 11 to 16 science teacher lacking this qualification.

Furthermore, only in 22 per cent of schools do science teachers have regular training related to practical science.

The report adds: “We see professional development and reflection time as important ways of addressing specialist shortfalls, but fewer than half of schools are able to give all their teachers this time. Specialist teacher shortages fuel a vicious cycle: teachers in an understaffed science department need to teach more lessons, so they have less time to support non-specialist colleagues.”

The report continues: “Notably, it looks as if most schools in England struggle to achieve the recommended frequency for practical science in benchmark 4, and that this is particularly true for older students taking examined courses.

“We judge that by international standards, overall English schools are well provided with laboratory facilities, so it is disappointing that many schools are not making full use of them.”

Figures in the report show that 64 per cent of schools only meet one of the 10 benchmarks, while 37 per cent meet two. The figure continues to decrease with six per cent meeting five benchmarks, one per cent meeting six and 0.3 per cent meeting seven. No schools meet eight or more benchmarks.

The report says that schools looking to improve their practical science offering should prioritise benchmarks one (planned practical science), three (expert teachers) and six (technical support) because “these three benchmarks are strong enablers for others”.

The report also offers a series of recommendations to schools, policy-makers, Ofsted and Ofqual. These include a heavier focus on practical science in teacher training and CPD, a review of accountability measures and their impact on practical science, and a review of science assessment and examination to gauge its impact on practical science.

Sir John said: “By far the greatest cost in delivering good practical science is teachers’ time, a cost that schools are already committed to, so in the end it is for headteachers and science heads to decide.

“Our benchmarks show what needs to be done to deliver practical science that is world class. By achieving that, we will engage students, whether or not they pursue science in the future, in the essence of what it is to be a scientist.”

He added: “Time and time again we have seen that practical science is key not only for learning, but also for inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers and technicians. The benchmarks presented in this report reflect world-leading standards and we hope to empower our teachers by giving them the tools to include practical science in a greater proportion of their lessons.”


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