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 told
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.
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.
We heard similar messages from SCORE (Science Community
the British Science Association,
the Association for Science Education
as well as a range of academics,
science related trade associations
and teacher unions.
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
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".
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
- to develop laboratory skills.
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,
official bodies such as Ofsted
and the Minister himself.
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
- developing active citizens and stewards of the
- nurturing creativity; and
- providing opportunities for informal learning
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 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.
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%.
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).
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
In its written evidence to this inquiry, the Department
for Education said that "science is a critically important
subject for this country".
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,
the difficulty in finding time for specialist continuing professional
development or time
to get out of the classroom
and teaching practical classes largely focussed on passing the
examination rather than furthering the three overarching aims
(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).
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.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
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.
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
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.
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
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".
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".
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%).
29. In written evidence to the inquiry, there was
a general acceptance, by teacher unions,
and technical organisations,
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
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.
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".
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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".
She indicated that these differences are down to the differences
between individual teachers.
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.
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".
Professor King of the Earth Science Teachers' Association told
us that the badge, which "has been very effective",
was only one part of the Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto.
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.
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'".
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
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
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
Ev w7, para 1 Back
Ev w55, paras 2 and 5 Back
Ev 79 Back
Ev 48 Back
Ev 90 Back
For example, Ev w26 [Dr Philip Wheeler and Dr Graham Scott, University
of Hull] Back
For example, Ev w24 [Association of the British Pharmaceutical
For example, Ev 76 [The National Union of Teachers] Back
Ev 104, para 1 Back
As above Back
Ev 79, para 2 Back
For example, Ev w1[Rosie Clift] Back
For example, Ev 48, para 4 [The British Science Association] Back
Ev 104, para 1 Back
Q 176 Back
"Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto", Department
for Children, Schools and Families, 2006 Back
Ev w14, para 1.3 Back
Ev w45, para 13 Back
Ev 55, para 19 Back
"Michael Gove speaks to the Royal Society on maths and science",
Department for Education website, 29 January 2011 www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/speeches/a00191729/michael-gove-speaks-to-the-royal-society-on-maths-and-science
Ev 45 Back
For example Ev 79 [SCORE] Back
For example Q 37 [Dr Phil Smith] Back
For example Q 56 [Annette Smith] Back
For example, Ev 77, para 4 [The National Union of Teachers] Back
Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, run by
the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational
Ev 80, para 1.5 Back
Ev w2, para 2 [Jane Giffould] Back
Q 106 Back
Science and Technology Committee, 3rd Report of Session
2001-2002, Science education from 14-19, HC 508-I, para
HC (2009-10) 418, para 29 Back
As above Back
Ev 61, para 4.1.2 Back
Ev 92, para 16 Back
For example, Ev 77, para 11 [The National Union of Teachers] Back
For example, Ev 79, paras 18-22 6 [SCORE] Back
For example, Ev 72, para 3 [CLEAPSS] Back
Q 15 [Professor King] Back
Ev 92, para 3 Back
Education Committee, 3rd Special Report of Session 2010-12, Transforming
education outside the classroom, HC 525 Appendix 2 para 5 Back
"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,
Q 66 Back
As above Back
Q 106 Back
Q 86 Back
As above Back
For example, Qq 6, 13, 42, 43, 52, 66 and 119 Back
Q 87 Back
Q 8 Back
Guidance produced by the then Department for Children, Schools
and Families in 2006,
Q 8 Back
Q 53 Back
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