Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the '59 Club

  The '59 Club is made of the Heads of Science in 26 independent schools in the UK.

  This group of schools annually submits over 5,000 entries for GCSE examinations in Biology, Chemistry and Physics and over 2,000 entries at A level in these three subjects. We wish to express our joint concern over some aspects of the present structure for the assessment of practical skills in examinations.

  Our main concern is with Sc1 in the GCSE examination but some of the points made here are also applicable to practical assessment at AS and A2 level.

  We agree that practical work and scientific enquiry is an important part of any science education and needs to be assessed. We also appreciate that if assessment did not take place some schools may do very little experimental work at all.

  However, the present system has become a mind-numbing and disheartening bureaucratic exercise whose principal aim is to ensure that pupils have jumped through the correct hoops to gain as many marks as possible. Practical work should be an enriching experience but instead has become a dismal slog which compromises the integrity of both teachers and pupils.

  This Sc1 assessment process has a negative attitude on pupils' attitude to science as it is excessively repetitive, often trivial and they do not learn anything of real value from the process. The closed nature of the investigations causes any aspect of creativity to be severely restricted, so imagination and enthusiasm are being stifled. Teachers are tempted to say, "You can't use that approach because it won't qualify for the top level of marks". Assessment is seen by pupils as a game where getting the right answer is the only goal.

  Sc1 investigations give the wrong impression about science in the real world where team-work, or at least discussions with others, is an important part of the discovery process. We prevent any kind of co-operation and require candidates to say that "this is all my own work." We understand that the I.B. scheme of Group 4 practical assessment which involves open-ended, co-operative working seems to be effective.

  In spite of the teachers' best efforts to ensure that pupils are marked purely on their own work, plagiarism is rife, the use of the internet is making this worse.

  The final profile of marks fails to discriminate between the good and mediocre practical workers. We are really testing the teachers rather than the pupils. Marks reflect how well the pupils have been coached to clear the requisite hurdles. This goal is often seen to be so vital that practice investigations and mock praticals are carried out as part of the training. The excitement of laboratory work disappears in these circumstances.

  Thus the outcome is not commensurate with the time and effort required, both in administrative paperwork and in the number of laboratory lessons used to ensure that targets are achieved. This loss of practical sessions limits the amount of genuinely stimulating experimental work that can be done.

  Many of us feel that pupils' practical experience in the sciences and their experimental skills in general are now poorer than they were 10 years ago.


  Assessment should not necessarily be based entirely on investigations.

  Only those practical skills (O and E) which cannot be tested on paper should be subjected to a system of internal assessment. This may amount to only 10 per cent of the final mark. The skills P and A can be assessed in the written examination, the old Nuffield Biology paper 1A and the data analysis questions from Nuffield A level Biology would be a suitable model to consider.

  Teachers need to be freed of many constraints so that they can be more flexible in their approach to assessment.

  One of us has suggested an even more drastic change in which the assessment of practical work in schools is not marked on a percentage basis. Instead teachers would simply be required to certify that an investigation had been carried out with a suitable level of competence. Pupils would practice and develop skills for however long was necessary until they had reached a required level. An external moderator would check the validity of the assessment. Such an investigation need not necessarily reach a conclusion and so would provide scope for creativity, ingenuity, inventiveness, challenge, satisfaction and enjoyment. It is this sort of positive experience which will encourage the pupil to consider sciences for A level or a career.

June 2002

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