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

Written evidence submitted by the Department for Education (Sch Sci 00)


Science is a critically important subject for this country. The Schools White Paper: The Importance of Teaching acknowledged the importance of a "strong national base of scientific skills" providing a clear commitment to provide additional support to improve take up and achievement in the sciences in schools and colleges.

Practical science delivered with flair and knowledge can help pupils understand scientific concepts and ignite their interest in physics, chemistry and biology. Practical science is also an important part of scientific knowledge and teaches pupils about the empirical basis of scientific enquiry.

The key to making sure that good quality practical science contributes fully to effective science teaching is having high calibre science teachers and technicians in place. It is also important that existing teachers have access to good quality professional development opportunities and that they teach to a curriculum that provides them with the freedom they need to teach science in a way that best suits the needs and aspiration of their pupils.


PISA 2009 showed that the UK performance in science continues to fall down the international rankings. England is now only marginally above the OECD average and so clearly there is much to be done to improve the general standard of science education if we are going to compete with the best in the world.

PISA 2006 (the most recent survey where science was the main focus) provides mixed results on the prevalence of practical science and field trips in England. We compared well internationally on the amount of time students spent doing practical experiments. This was supported by analysis[1] undertaken by SCORE[2] which found that in the UK more practical work takes place in science lessons than in most other countries. However, PISA 2006 data also showed that students in England tended to take part in slightly fewer excursions or field trips when compared to other countries.


When learning science topics at school, how often do the following activities occur?

Students spend time in the laboratory doing practical experiments
EnglandWales Northern IrelandFinland New ZealandJapan OECD Average
In all lessons-3% 2%2%3% 3%4%
In most lessons24%17% 16%20%18% 7%16%
In some lessons62%67% 66%52%57% 44%43%
Never or hardly ever11% 13%16%25% 12%45%30%


The latest Ofsted report on science education[3] found that more practical science lessons and scientific enquiry were key factors in schools which showed clear improvements in promoting students' engagement, understanding and progress. The report recommended that secondary schools and colleges ensure they use practical work and scientific enquiry as the key stimulus to develop scientific knowledge, understanding and skills. Crucial to achieving this will be to make sure we have enough good teachers in place and that existing teachers have good access to professional development opportunities so that they can readily update their subject-knowledge and skills. This is supported by SCORE who emphasised in their report the importance of effective teaching for improving the quality of practical work in science.


We remain concerned that we are not drawing enough teachers from our top graduates, and find it challenging to attract the necessary number of graduates into some subjects such as science. Latest evidence[4] shows that only 14% of science teachers have a physics degree, 22% have a chemistry degree and 44% have a biology degree. The Importance of Teaching White Paper states the Government's intention to provide stronger incentives to attract the best graduates to come into teaching, including science.

Changes to higher education and student finance have been announced by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. The Department for Education will publish later this year further details of proposals for the reform of initial teacher training. These will be discussed with schools, students, universities and other teacher training providers, before confirming plans in the summer, in time for the recruitment of teachers who start their training in September 2012. The White Paper also reaffirms our commitment to more than double the number of participants in the Teach First scheme so that more schools are able to benefit from the talents of the country's best graduates. The majority of Teach First participants teach the most demanding shortage subjects. In addition, teacher training bursaries are continuing to be paid to graduates in the sciences.


It is important that teachers and technicians have access to good quality professional development so that they can update and improve their subject-knowledge and skills. This is crucial to good quality practical work, enriching teaching and improving engagement in science subjects. The network of science learning centres (jointly funded by the DfE and the Wellcome Trust) will continue to play an important role in providing teachers and technicians with access to such opportunities.

Science learning centres will complement our more general approach to teachers' continuing professional development (CPD) and leadership training. This will focus on schools taking the lead for the training and development of teachers and creating more practical opportunities for peer to peer training. Giving schools greater autonomy in what they do and encouraging greater collaboration between schools will help ensure improvements in science education. This is consistent with our philosophy that teaching professionals know how best to teach.

At the heart of this approach will be the network of teaching schools.[5] These schools will work with strategic partners, including science learning centres and others who can contribute to improving the quality of science teaching, to offer a range of CPD opportunities for teachers and support staff including technicians. Teaching schools will also need to identify other schools and individuals that have the skills, capacity and willingness to work outside their own school to deliver programmes as well as coaching and peer to peer support. The expectation is that the scale and range of provision will grow as teaching school partnerships evolve.

We will continue to develop the relationship between science learning centres and teaching schools to ensure teachers have access to the highest quality development opportunities.


The Government set out in the Schools White Paper its commitment to give schools greater freedom over the curriculum. As part of that commitment, Ministers launched a comprehensive review of the National Curriculum in England for 5-16 year olds.

Science is one of four subjects—along with English, mathematics and physical education—that have been confirmed will remain part of the National Curriculum at all four Key Stages; and in the first phase of the review we are drawing up drafts of new Programmes of Study for these subjects.

The review will consider the National Curriculum at both primary and secondary levels with the aim of setting out the essential knowledge that all pupils should acquire in key subjects such as science. The review will be informed by the best available evidence, including evidence about what works in the most successful education jurisdictions in the world. The new Programmes of Study for science will be prepared and available to schools by September 2012, to be taught in maintained schools from September 2013.

The Government is committed to wide-ranging and open consultation on the new National Curriculum. The review was launched on 20 January, together with a Call for Evidence which ran until 14 April. We received over 5,800 responses, including detailed responses from the Royal Society, the Association for Science Education and SCORE. We have also been consulting directly with the science education community to seek their views on the content of the science curriculum. This includes the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Society of Biology, the Association for Science Education, the Royal Society and SCORE. This provided them with the opportunity to stress the importance of scientific enquiry and practical work in science education. The Department led a seminar with a wide range of key stakeholders on 31 March, and SCORE organised a one-off conference on the review on 21 March. Further consultation is planned including events to seek the more detailed views of practising teachers.


The Schools White Paper set out the Government's intentions for qualifications reform. New GCSEs will be developed to reflect the outcomes of the National Curriculum review, and specifically to reflect the new Programmes of Study for science. In reforming GCSEs, we will also assess the extent to which the ability to undertake effectively practical experiments in laboratory, field and other environments should be specifically assessed through formal examinations.

The Department is working with Ofqual on a new process for developing A levels which gives universities and learned societies a much stronger say in their design and development. A levels should match the best qualifications in the world and assess candidates on the knowledge which universities require them to have. We will look to universities to advise on the extent to which practical experiments and field study should be part of A level specifications in science subjects in future.


Some work has been undertaken and is in place to promote greater use of good quality practical work in science lessons at all levels of education. This includes specific projects and programmes supported by the Department for Education to raise the profile of practical science.

The Getting Practical Programme: Improving Practical Work in Science (IPWiS) project was a two year project delivered on behalf of the Department for Education by the Association for Science Education in partnership with the science learning centres, the Centre for Science Education and CLEAPSS. This was in response to concerns raised by the science education community about the quality of practical work being carried out in schools. Its aim was to raise the awareness of the importance of practical work and to improve the quality of practical work in primary and secondary schools. The programme, which ended in March 2011, provided professional development for teachers, technicians and high level teaching assistants. The evaluation of this programme found that it brought about a substantial change in both the use and effectiveness of practical science.

As part of a drive to promote practical work, the Department also contracted with SCORE to produce the Practical Work in Science booklets that were sent to all primary and secondary schools in England in 2009. The booklets were designed to help teachers recognise and plan for a wide variety of high quality practical work, including opportunities for pupils to practise specific scientific techniques and procedures.

The network of science learning centres provide science teachers and technicians with a good range of professional development opportunities including courses and events on practical work. The Science Learning Centre website provides access to a whole range of support for teachers including, for instance, the Practical Chemistry webpage which provides teachers of chemistry with a range of experiments from which to choose. The National STEM Centre, funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, is based at the National Science Learning Centre in York. It houses a large collection of resources that science teachers can draw on to support teaching in the classroom.

The DfE-funded online directories of STEM enhancement and enrichment activities provide yet another source of rich high quality programmes and activities that teachers can use.


Although health and safety risks need to be managed, the safety measures adopted should be proportionate, and in most instances will enable rather than hinder activities, thus enabling pupils to benefit from a wide range of experiences.

All schools must adhere to the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974 which places a duty on employers to ensure that all staff and pupils are safe; and The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, which requires employers to assess the risks of activities such as science lessons and field trips and to put into place measures to control those risks. Currently in relation to some field trip activities (eg caving, trekking etc) schools should check that the provider holds a licence from the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority, which manages the statutory inspection and licensing scheme as set up in 1996. Parental consent is advisable for visits that involve any element of the outdoors and, in general, for visits that take place outside the normal school day. Information (without consent) should suffice for less adventurous visits that fall within the school day. In the case of science lessons as well as the HSWA duties school should also look at advice from CLEAPSS, which has a website of information on practical safety measures.

The SCORE Practical Work in Science booklets also contained general health and safety guidance; and there are professional development courses on health and safety available through the network of science learning centres.

The Government wants schools to adopt a more common sense approach towards health and safety by reducing the level of bureaucracy involved. We are concerned that too great a focus on health and safety can often stifle school activities, particularly off site educational visits. The Government wishes to encourage teachers to take pupils off-site by making it simpler to do so safely.

The Department for Education published, on its website in February, its response to Lord Young's report Common Sense, Common Safety (published in October 2010) following his review of health and safety law and the compensation culture. We are working with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on the recommendations that apply to schools.

The Department leads on facilitating school trips in general. This includes new succinct guidance to convey the message that consent is not advisable for most off-site activities that occur during the school day, and to offer a generic consent form for each pupil which can be used, with an opt-out, for the comparatively few visits on which parental consent is advisable. These, and other measures on which we are assisting the HSE, are designed to make risk assessment more realistic for schools, making it easier for science field trips, amongst other off-site excursions, to be undertaken.

Department for Education

10 May 2011

1   Practical work in science: a report and proposal for a strategic framework, December 2008 Back

2   Science Community Representing Education. Members comprise the Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry, Society of Biology, Association for Science Education, Royal Society and the Science Council. Back

3   Successful science: an evaluation of science education in England 2007-2010, published January 2011. Back

4   School Workforce Census, November 2010. Back

5   The teaching schools prospectus can be found at: 

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Prepared 14 September 2011