Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by The Wellcome Trust

  1.  The Wellcome Trust is pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the Education and Skills Committee inquiry into Testing and Assessment.

  2.  The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending around £500 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing. As part of this public engagement work, our education programme sets out to stimulate interest and excitement in science amongst young people, increase the quality of young people entering biomedical related careers and support scientific literacy more broadly.

  3.  Our response to this consultation will concentrate mainly on assessment in science education, which is of most relevance to the work of the Wellcome Trust. We argue that assessment systems in school science should ensure young people are tested on scientific understanding and skills rather than simply factual recall. In 2005, the Trust commissioned a study to explore primary teachers' views and experiences of science education across the UK. The resulting report, Primary Horizons: Starting out in science, highlighted issues relating both to formative assessment and statutory national tests. In terms of statutory testing, the study found that primary teachers felt that national tests had a negative effect on children's enjoyment of science, because of the increasing tendency to "teach to the test". An over-emphasis on curriculum content and pressure to prepare for national tests were felt to reduce opportunities for investigative work and lead to science frequently being taught as a collection of facts.

  4.  Young people often respond very positively to constructive feedback that tracks their progress and informs their development. Teachers in the Primary Horizons study agreed that both teachers and children find this sort of "formative assessment" ("assessment for learning") more enjoyable than "summative assessment", where the main purpose is to give a quantitative grading. Pressure to perform well in national tests in England and Northern Ireland appeared to have a considerable negative influence on the use of formative assessment in the later primary years.

  5.  The report recommended that further research should be carried out into the effects of national tests on young people's attitudes to science, and on opportunities for children to develop investigative, questioning and thinking skills. The Wellcome Trust is in the process of commissioning research into the effects of compulsory national testing in science on teachers and teaching at Key Stage 2. The study will include a comparison between teachers in England and Wales, where compulsory national testing has now been removed at Key Stage 2, providing the rare opportunity to compare two different assessment systems operating with the same curriculum. We have discussed the research with the Clerk of the Committee and hope to be able to contribute interim findings to the Committee's inquiry by the end of the year.

  6.  We would also like to highlight the role of continuing professional development (CPD) in supporting assessment. The Primary Horizons report found that those teachers who had undertaken CPD in science were more confident in nearly all aspects of science teaching, including the use of formative assessment. Teachers who had participated in science-specific CPD were significantly more likely to include investigations, mind mapping and individual target setting as part of their assessment in science. Provision is now in place to deliver high quality CPD for teachers of science through the national Science Learning Centres network; it will be important to realise the benefits of this network to support and enhance assessment skills.

June 2007

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