Plans to remove direct assessment of practical skills from GCSE science have "great potential for damage"

09 January 2015

The Nuffield Foundation, Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation have urged exams regulator Ofqual to reconsider its plans to remove direct assessment of practical skills from GCSE science

In a joint letter to Ofqual Chief Executive Glenys Stacey, the three charities argue that the "proposals are being formulated in the absence of evidence on the effect they may have on the quality and quantity of practical science being carried out in schools, on the effectiveness of written questions in assessing practical skills, and on the potential impact on students’ engagement in science learning."

The letter recommends Ofqual wait for evidence from research currently underway on the assessment of practical science before proceeding with changes at GCSE.

The research is part of the three organisations' joint programme of work exploring ways to better enable all schools and colleges to engage their students with high quality science practical work. It was initiated following the decision to remove practical assessment from science A level grades, which was met with serious concern from much of the science education community. 

One project aims to identify better approaches to the assessment of practical skills in science GCSEs and A levels. Another is a long-term monitoring programme to capture changes in the quality and quantity of practical science in a representative sample of 1000 schools and colleges, including those in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and gaining annual feedback from at least 3000 members of staff. 

Growing consensus

These concerns are shared by Sir David Bell, President of the Association for Science Education (ASE) and former head of Ofsted and permanent secretary at the Department for Education. In his speech to the ASE conference today, Sir David will suggest that: "Failing to build consensus results in the sort of highly dangerous experiment by Ofqual and ministers to separate the grade for assessed practical work from the main grades at A-level and GCSE science. It sends out a message that hard-nosed practical skills are not valued equally to theory."