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

2  Practical lessons and field trips

The value of science practicals and field trips

13. Before considering whether science practicals and field trips were in decline, we asked whether they were essential or simply a desirable addition to the science curriculum. The written evidence we received was overwhelmingly in support for practical science. For example, the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre[8] told us that:

Science is not simply a body of knowledge. It is also a way of thinking, of approaching problems, planning investigative work and evaluating evidence. Many of these skills can only be developed experientially through experiments and observations.[9]

The Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK made the point that:

science and engineering are critical to the UK's social and economic future [...] this country must strengthen its medium- and high-skills sectors in order to be competitive. [...] Consequently it is essential that the government places a greater emphasis on improving practical skills in schools.[10]

We heard similar messages from SCORE (Science Community Representing Education),[11] the British Science Association,[12] the Association for Science Education[13] as well as a range of academics,[14] science related trade associations[15] and teacher unions.[16]

14. Ofsted told us that "in the schools which showed clear improvement in science subjects, key factors in promoting students' engagement, learning and progress were more practical science lessons and the development of the skills of scientific enquiry".[17] They pointed out that "where students progress in science was no more than satisfactory, the opportunities for them to design and carry out experiments were limited; too much of the practical work was prescriptive, with students merely following instructions".[18]

15. In its written evidence SCORE explained that good quality practical work should have three overarching purposes:

  • to enable and enhance the learning of scientific concepts;
  • to engender an understanding of the scientific process; and
  • to develop laboratory skills.[19]

16. We had a similar response on the need to get outside the classroom. The evidence for the positive effects of fieldwork, similarly, came from a wide range of witnesses. We were told about the benefits of getting students out of the classroom by individual teachers,[20] science organisations,[21] official bodies such as Ofsted[22] and the Minister himself.[23] The Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto, introduced by the previous Government, summarised the benefits from working outside the classroom and they included:

  • improving academic achievement;
  • providing a bridge to higher order learning;
  • developing skills and independence in a widening range of environments;
  • making learning more engaging and relevant to young people;
  • developing active citizens and stewards of the environment;
  • nurturing creativity; and
  • providing opportunities for informal learning through play.[24]

17. Myscience, the government funded organisation that runs the Science Learning Centres to provide continuing professional development for science teachers, told us of the value of field trips:

Trips provide a valuable means by which learning in school can be transferred to different settings. They encourage pupils to make connections between knowledge they have gained in their science lessons and the "real" world, as well as linking different areas of the curriculum; both desirable outcomes which can be difficult to achieve within the normal school setting. Trips can also provide an effective way to help pupils see the scope and range of STEM-related jobs, breaking down stereotypes and providing exposure to the wide range of careers which STEM qualifications can lead to.[25]

18. EngineeringUK, a not-for-profit organisation promoting the contribution of engineers, engineering and technology to society, spoke strongly in favour of field trips as allowing students to see what value science qualifications might have for future career paths:

The Big Bang [science fair] had a positive impact on how likely children are to want to become an engineer. Three fifths of boys (61%) aged 12-16 interviewed at The Big Bang said that their visit had made them either 'a little more' or 'much more' likely to want to become an engineer. The proportion amongst girls of the same age was similar, at 58%.[26]

19. The Field Studies Council explained to us the value of practical science out of the classroom (fieldwork):

Teachers working with the [Council] also note that the experience of using 'messy' primary data outside the classroom (i.e. less easily sanitised, managed and orderly than its indoor or virtual equivalent) is very powerful in demonstrating the real strength of scientific methodology (How Science Works).[27]

20. Finally, putting the study of science subjects in context, the Secretary of State for Education, in a speech to the Royal Society in January 2011, said that:

For any politician anxious to ensure the next generation enjoy opportunities to flourish in an economy that is growing, in a nation that is confident and in a society that believes in progress, there is no escaping the centrality of mathematics and science.[28]

In its written evidence to this inquiry, the Department for Education said that "science is a critically important subject for this country".[29]

21. We agree on the importance of science to the UK economy and, given the overwhelmingly positive nature of the evidence provided to us on the value of practical experience both in and out of the classroom, we conclude that both practical lessons and learning outside the classroom are essential contributors to good quality science education.

Concerns about science practicals and field trips

22. The written and oral evidence provided to us covered issues concerning both the quantity and quality of practicals and learning outside the classroom. Organisations such as SCORE and the Association for Science Education cited the following factors as contributing to a decline in the quality of practical science: the pressures of managing a busy curriculum,[30] the difficulty in finding time for specialist continuing professional development[31] or time to get out of the classroom[32] and teaching practical classes largely focussed on passing the examination rather than furthering the three overarching aims[33] (set out above at paragraph 15). We set out in more detail the significant decline in residential fieldwork at paragraph 73 but SCORE's written evidence summarised the position:

SCORE acknowledges that in the UK more practical work takes place in science lessons than in most other countries (indicated by international comparisons such as TIMSS).[34] However, there remains concern among the science community that schools in general are not doing enough (or doing the right kind of) practical work and that its quality is uneven.[35]


23. As we explained in chapter 1, our initial impetus for this inquiry arose from concerns about health and safety on science practicals and field trips. However, although health and safety concerns featured in the evidence, it was not the predominant reason given for the decline in the quantity or quality of science practicals or field trips. A practising teacher told us that "health and safety issues linked with the blame culture" were providing "a disincentive to do anything that might have a risk" and that "attitudes of senior management who are wary of science and are risk averse" were aiding the decline of practicals and field trips.[36] In our report we first look at health and safety before considering, in the next chapter, the wider issues surrounding the provision of practical science experience in schools and what the Government and the wider science community could do to improve the situation.

24. We asked for evidence on the impact of health and safety as we needed to determine whether the legislation itself was a problem, whether there were indirect effects or whether the reports were simply wrong.

25. It is a common feature of today's society to hear of restrictions due to health and safety. It is not restricted to schools. The Health and Safety Executive told us that:

there is a general issue in society about health and safety, which has effectively replaced mothers-in-law as something that comedians know will get a cheap laugh. Most of it is based on perception, myth, and inaccurate reporting or recording of things. There is that background in society; it is not just a "school" thing.[37]

26. The Health and Safety Executive's perspective was shared by our predecessor Committee when it considered the impact of health and safety on practical science lessons some ten years ago:

there is a widely held belief that practical work in schools is now constrained by health and safety regulations. This is simply not true. Indeed, we have heard that the introduction of risk assessment as standard practice enables a wider range of experimental work to be carried out than previously.[38]

27. More recently, health and safety was considered by the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee in its 2010 inquiry into Transforming Learning Outside the Classroom. The Committee noted evidence from the Countryside Alliance that indicated "that health and safety concerns were still the main barrier to learning outside the classroom for 76% of teachers".[39] However, the report added that it "was suggested to us that, among school leaders, health and safety is sometimes used as an excuse rather than a reason for not offering trips or practical work".[40]

28. The Countryside Alliance's survey was not, however, supported by the Association for Science Education and the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, which have recently surveyed teachers on the barriers to practicals. Neither of these studies indicated health and safety as the main barrier. The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom found cost the greatest barrier (57%), health and safety issues next (46%) and then the stress of organising (41%). They played down the health and safety issue as "many barriers associated with the health and safety requirements are perceived rather than real, as teachers are confused about the legal requirements around risk assessments, ratios etc".[41] The Association for Science Education found the major concerns for teachers that militated against working outside the classroom were a lack of time (52%), the requirements of examinations and assessment (45%) and the demands of the curriculum (38%); health and safety was well down this list of concerns (16%).[42]

29. In written evidence to the inquiry, there was a general acceptance, by teacher unions,[43] science organisations[44] and technical organisations,[45] that risk assessment was a necessary activity and in oral evidence it was pointed out that while "Fieldwork is inherently risky [...] the most risky thing you can do in fieldwork is to drive there".[46] The Health and Safety Executive told us that:

there is no reason why health and safety should stop schools carrying out science experiments or field trips [...] all that is required in most cases are a few sensible precautions. [...] HSE has worked with educational science bodies over many years to establish and publicise what those precautions should be and to ensure that they are sensible, practical and proportionate.[47]

In response to the 2010 Children, Schools and Families Committee's concerns about the use of health and safety as an excuse (see paragraph 27), the Coalition Government said that it was "ready to explore how to increase school freedom in this regard by, for example, reviewing the constraints flowing from unnecessary Health and Safety red tape".[48] New guidance to schools, published on 2 July 2011, stated that:

School employers should always take a commonsense and proportionate approach, remembering that in schools the purpose of risk assessment and management is to help children to undertake activities safely, not to prevent activities from taking place. They cannot remove risk altogether and they should not require needless or unhelpful paperwork.[49]

30. As a Committee we are always cautious to draw a conclusion from the absence of evidence. In this case, however, we were struck by the fact that in the responses to our call for evidence we have received no detailed cases showing that health and safety legislation had directly prevented a sensible and reasonable science practical in a classroom or an out-of-school activity. We found no convincing evidence that health and safety legislation itself prevents science practicals or field trips.

31. Instead, the evidence before us had a strong undercurrent showing an indirect influence of health and safety on school science and field trips. We heard anecdotal evidence that a fear of health and safety influenced the delivery of practicals and field trips. In oral evidence, Steve Tilling of the Field Studies Council told us that "it is true to say that, when we worked, for example, in inner London, health and safety was being used as an excuse not to do outdoor science and fieldwork".[50] Annette Smith of the Association for Science Education added that a teacher who "feels less confident in taking a practical or a fieldwork activity" would be more likely to "overly rely on the paperwork" thus perpetuating the story that health and safety itself is the issue.[51] Nigel Thomas of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation explained that:

Anyone who has been involved in science education over the last 20 years has heard persistent anecdotal evidence that health and safety perceptions have an impact on the range and quality of practicals undertaken in school science lessons. You can debate whether teachers use it as an excuse or they genuinely have a misconception that something is banned or unsafe, but I think there is widespread anecdotal evidence to suggest that it has an effect.[52]

32. The effects of the perception of health and safety were not, however, uniform or necessarily of general application. Beth Gardner, Chief Executive of the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, pointed out that: "You can get two very similar schools with very similar catchments and similar resources. One will be very good at learning outside the classroom and one will not have embraced it at all".[53] She indicated that these differences are down to the differences between individual teachers.[54]

33. A lack of knowledge among teachers may also be the reason why health and safety is mentioned as not allowing practical experiments inside and outside the classroom. In oral evidence, witnesses repeatedly told us that health and safety was not a concern to experienced, knowledgeable teachers.[55]

34. Ms Gardner highlighted the existence of the Learning outside the Classroom Quality Badge, awarded to providers of learning experiences outside the classroom that meet a set of quality standards set by the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. She told us that "one of the reasons behind setting up the Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge[…] is [that it is] one badge, making it easily recognisable for teachers looking at the quality of education as well as risk-effectiveness".[56] Professor King of the Earth Science Teachers' Association told us that the badge, which "has been very effective",[57] was only one part of the Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto.[58] He explained that the other strand that was supposed to cover fieldwork had not been as well developed:

the Outdoor Manifesto [...] was supposed to have two main strands. One was the badging strand, and that has been very effective. The other thing was supposed to be supporting teachers to do fieldwork more effectively. What happened there was, that a lot of money went to consultants, some things were put on the website and nothing happened beyond that. So that strand never took off in the same way that the other one did. I think that is what we need to focus on now.[59]

We have received no evidence of anything similar to provide clear assurances about classroom practical activities.

35. We are clear that teachers should never have to decide between following interpretations of health and safety rules or the delivery of an interesting and engaging practical lesson. Paul Cohen from the Training and Development Agency told us: "There is a balance there between being aware of [health, safety and safeguarding requirements] but also being able then to go ahead and do it and not just to say, 'It's all too difficult'".[60] From the evidence we received we reached the following conclusions. First, it is self evident to us that teachers should have access to resources that enable them to make well-informed, quick and easy decisions about health and safety to allow more time to focus on the delivery of educational benefits. Second, it appears that teachers may cite health and safety when they are unsure of their ability to carry out a field trip or believe that the volume and nature of paperwork will outweigh any benefits of taking on the trip.

36. On the latter we are convinced that good training and guidance should not only provide teachers with the information and skills to carry out the work but also work toward dispelling any myths about health and safety. We examine teachers' skills in more detail at paragraphs 45 to 48 and 56 to 60.

37. The Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge has been successful in its aim to move some of the health and safety burden for field trips from schools to providers making it easier for teachers to make decisions about learning outside the classroom activities. We see value in a central scheme, like the Quality Badge, to allow teachers quickly and easily to assess health and safety for other practical activities outside the classroom and practical classes inside the classroom. We recommend that the Government work to establish a central repository or facility (or network of such facilities with a common interface) which will contain details and guidance on standard experiments. This facility should provide access, for member schools, to any CLEAPSS[61] provided health and safety guidance for those experiments.

8   An organisation, similar to CLEAPSS, in providing practical advice to schools on practicals and associated health and safety issues but focussed on Scotland rather than England and Wales.  Back

9   Ev w7, para 1 Back

10   Ev w55, paras 2 and 5 Back

11   Ev 79 Back

12   Ev 48 Back

13   Ev 90 Back

14   For example, Ev w26 [Dr Philip Wheeler and Dr Graham Scott, University of Hull] Back

15   For example, Ev w24 [Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry] Back

16   For example, Ev 76 [The National Union of Teachers] Back

17   Ev 104, para 1 Back

18   As above Back

19   Ev 79, para 2 Back

20   For example, Ev w1[Rosie Clift] Back

21   For example, Ev 48, para 4 [The British Science Association] Back

22   Ev 104, para 1 Back

23   Q 176 Back

24   "Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto", Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2006 Back

25   Ev w14, para 1.3 Back

26   Ev w45, para 13 Back

27   Ev 55, para 19 Back

28   "Michael Gove speaks to the Royal Society on maths and science", Department for Education website, 29 January 2011  Back

29   Ev 45 Back

30   For example Ev 79 [SCORE] Back

31   For example Q 37 [Dr Phil Smith] Back

32   For example Q 56 [Annette Smith] Back

33   For example, Ev 77, para 4 [The National Union of Teachers] Back

34   Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement Back

35   Ev 80, para 1.5 Back

36   Ev w2, para 2 [Jane Giffould] Back

37   Q 106 Back

38   Science and Technology Committee, 3rd Report of Session 2001-2002, Science education from 14-19, HC 508-I, para 137 Back

39   HC (2009-10) 418, para 29 Back

40   As above Back

41   Ev 61, para 4.1.2 Back

42   Ev 92, para 16 Back

43   For example, Ev 77, para 11 [The National Union of Teachers] Back

44   For example, Ev 79, paras 18-22 6 [SCORE] Back

45   For example, Ev 72, para 3 [CLEAPSS] Back

46   Q 15 [Professor King] Back

47   Ev 92, para 3 Back

48   Education Committee, 3rd Special Report of Session 2010-12, Transforming education outside the classroom, HC 525 Appendix 2 para 5 Back

49   "Health & Safety, Department for Education advice on legal duties and powers for local authorities, head teachers, staff and governing bodies", Department for Education, 2 July 2011,  Back

50   Q 66  Back

51   As above  Back

52   Q 106 Back

53   Q 86 Back

54   As above  Back

55   For example, Qq 6, 13, 42, 43, 52, 66 and 119 Back

56   Q 87 Back

57   Q 8  Back

58   Guidance produced by the then Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2006,  Back

59   Q 8 Back

60   Q 53 Back

61   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