School science under pressure, say teachers

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A combination of curriculum pressure and over-assessment is strait-jacketing science teachers and limiting the amount of time spent on vital classroom practicals, according to a survey by the national network of Science Learning Centres.

96% of the 1,339 science teachers and technicians surveyed said they were in some way hindered from undertaking science practical work. When asked to name the top three limiting factors more than two thirds (69%) blamed a content heavy curriculum, while 41% said assessment demands were too frequent. Poor student behaviour was a factor for 29% of teachers and a quarter said that a lack of funding to buy equipment was a problem. Only 10% pointed to health and safety fears as a reason.

Professor Sir John Holman, Director of the National Science Learning Centre, said: “Learning science without practicals is the equivalent of studying literature without books. Experimental evidence is the mainstay of science and the UK has a very strong tradition of scientific practical work in schools. It concerns me that, for a range of reasons, many teachers currently feel unable to dedicate as much time to practical work in the classroom as they would like to and today’s students therefore have fewer opportunities for exploratory learning. Activities such as ripple tanks, dissection and microbiology, which were once to be found in school science labs up and down the country, are becoming endangered species.

“While it is certainly not the case that schools are being forced to abandon all practical work, I am alarmed by this trend and struck by the obstacles that teachers say they are facing. Over-assessment emerges very clearly in our research as one of the main factors inhibiting teachers from carrying out engaging, purposeful and effective practical work in science. We echo the call in the Science and Learning Expert Group’s recent report, Science and Mathematics Secondary Education for the 21st Century, for a major reduction in the burden of summative assessment at GCSE and A level.”

The problem appears to intensify as students move through secondary school. While 63% of Key Stage 3 teachers said they spent 40% of their teaching time on practical work, that figure drops to 43% for Key Stage 4 teachers and to just 28% post-16.

Though science teachers are finding it harder to run practical work in the classroom, the Science Learning Centres survey shows that they are acutely aware of the integral role it plays in scientific learning. The five main reasons for doing practical work in science according to respondents were helping learners to understand scientific concepts (88%), linking theory to practice (84%), helping students to develop skills such as observation (82%), motivating students (81%) and helping students to develop an understanding of scientific enquiry (80%).

Sir John continued: “It is very encouraging to see so many teachers emphasising the importance of meaningful and effective practical work and showing positive attitudes towards it. Quality of practical work is even more important than quantity. We need to make sure that teachers get proper support to carry out high quality classroom experiments and that nothing is allowed to get in the way of this vital element of school science.”

When asked what additional support would help them make their use of practical work more effective, over two thirds of respondents picked smaller class sizes. More time for planning (57%), a less content-heavy curriculum (43%), easy access to new ideas (43%) and support from technicians and teaching assistants (19%) were also common responses.

Around 45% of the teachers and technicians surveyed said they wanted more professional development to boost their knowledge and confidence in relation to running practical work. The national network of Science Learning Centres provides science teachers with world-class professional development to help them keep abreast of their fast-changing subjects and to introduce cutting-edge science to the classroom. The Centres also provide a focal point for the science education community, a place to exchange ideas with fellow science educators, a venue for events with inspirational scientists, and easy access to the latest science resources.

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