Practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips - Science and Technology Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. There have been persistent reports in the press that that science practicals and field trips were in decline and that the reason was health and safety concerns.[1] Despite ongoing work by the Health and Safety Executive[2] and a campaign by the Royal Society for Chemistry aimed at allaying concerns,[3] the persistent nature of these stories convinced us that this was an issue that needed examination.

2. Science practicals in the classroom and field trips should be the activities that link students' theoretical learning in schools with the practical application of science to the world at large and, later, in the workplace. We also had a concern that any decline in practicals and fieldwork could be a symptom of, if not directly linked to, a wider decline in the study of science in schools. Education is a devolved issue and, following the line of much of the evidence sent in response to the inquiry, this report is mainly focussed on England but comparisons with Scotland are important.

3. The reasons why children study science raises issues that go wider than this report. We note that, despite a range of research on the subject, there is currently no widely accepted research on the reasons why children choose to take up, or not to take up, science at certificate levels. Professor Dillon of King's College London provided us with research in this area which is part of an ongoing research programme into this subject.[4] We hope that the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education[5] will provide the Government with a solid foundation upon which it can build greater participation in STEM[6] subjects. This is an issue we shall monitor and we may return to it later in the Parliament.

4. Given the importance of science education to the UK economy and the need to encourage children to participate in science, we decided to hold an inquiry into practical experiments in science lessons and science field trips. When we received evidence it appeared that field trip can have a generic meaning covering all work outside the classroom and a specific meaning. To avoid confusion, within this report we will refer broadly to learning outside the classroom when referring to both field work and field trips but will deal separately with them at some points. For the purpose of this report fieldwork is taken to mean activity outside the classroom organised by the classroom teacher independently of third parties, usually to undertake curriculum related activity; field trip is taken to mean an activity where the students are taken to an outside location where they will either see something science related, such as touring the Natural History Museum, participating in a learning activity run by a third party, such as participating in an Earth Lab Workshop at the Natural History Museum or attending an event such as the Big Bang (the UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair).

5. We issued a call for evidence on 5 April 2011 on the following questions:

a)  How important are practical experiments and field trips in science education?

b)  Are practical experiments in science lessons and science field trips in decline? If they are, what are the reasons for the decline?

c)  What part do health and safety concerns play in preventing school pupils from performing practical experiments in science lessons and going on field trips? What rules and regulations apply to science experiments and field trips and how are they being interpreted?

d)  Do examination boards adequately recognise practical experiments and trips?

e)  If the quality or number of practical experiments and field trips is declining, what are the consequences for science education and career choices? For example, what effects are there on the performance and achievement of pupils and students in Higher Education?

f)  What changes should be made?

g)  Is the experience of schools in England in line with schools in the devolved administrations and other countries?

6. The Committee received 47 written submissions.

7. We took oral evidence from five panels of witnesses over three evidence sessions. On 15 June we took evidence from practising teachers: Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary, National Union of Teachers, Dr Stuart Hitch, Earth Science Teachers' Association affiliated teacher, Greg Jones, National Union of Teachers affiliated teacher, Professor Chris King, Earth Science Teachers' Association, and Darren Northcott, National Official (Education), National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers.

8. On 29 June we took evidence from two panels of witnesses in organisations providing support to teachers and schools in the delivery of practicals and learning outside the classroom. The first panel explored support to individual teachers: Paul Cohen, Director Initial Teacher Training Recruitment, Training and Development Agency, Annette Smith, Chief Executive, British Science Association, Dr Phil Smith MBE, Co-ordinator, Teacher Scientist Network, and Dr Steve Tilling, Field Studies Council. The second panel considered wider school issues: Beth Gardner, Chief Executive, Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, Professor Graham Hutchings FRS, Chair, SCORE (Science Community Representing Education), Sir Roland Jackson, Chief Executive, British Science Association, and Steve Jones, Director, CLEAPSS.[7]

9. Third, we took evidence on 4 July, first from David Knighton, Reporting Inspector, Ofsted, Kevin Myers, Deputy Chief Executive, Health and Safety Executive, Dennis Opposs, Director of Standards, Ofqual, and Nigel Thomas, Director, Education and Skills, Gatsby Foundation, followed by Nick Gibb MP, Minister for Schools, Department for Education.

10. Finally, we wanted to have views from students at school. In cooperation with The Student Room website, we opened an e-consultation to hear views from students regarding their school science practicals experiences and field trips. The e-consultation ended on 8 July 2011 and a summary of the main points from the exercise is set out in an annex to our report.

11. We would like to thank those who provided written and oral evidence to this inquiry. In addition, we extend our gratitude to Quintin Kynaston School in London for accommodating us on a visit conducted as part of our inquiry on 23 June.

12. In this report we examine whether there is value in practical science and field trips and if there has been a decline in quantity or quality in either of these. In chapter 2 we examine the value of practical science, any concerns about its provision, in particular whether health and safety legislation hinders the provision of practical science in schools and learning outside the classroom. Chapter 3 examines a wide range of issues. We consider other issues (than health and safety) raised as potential hindrances to providing quality science experiences and what might be done to address these within the current Government's education policy. Finally, in chapter 4 we look at the role of the wider science community in supporting teachers and providing routes to engage and enthuse students to take up science at certificate levels.

1   For example, "School lab health and safety rules 'could stop future scientists'", Times Online, 5 October 2009, and "Warning over red tape for science field trips" , BBC Online, 19 January 2011,  Back

2   "Myth of the Month", December 2010, Health and Safety Executive,  Back

3   "Surely that's banned", Royal Society of Chemistry, October 2005,  Back

4   "Science Aspirations and Career Choice: Age 10-14", Professor Justin Dillon, ASPIRES interim summary, January 2011  Back

5   The Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education (TISME) is a programme of research funded by the ESRC in partnership with the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, The Institute of Physics and the Association of Science Education.  Back

6   Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Back

7   CLEAPSS is an advisory service providing support in science and technology for a consortium of local authorities and their schools including establishments for pupils with special needs.  Back

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Prepared 14 September 2011