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

Written evidence submitted by Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) (Sch Sci 20)

1.  Ofqual's role is to regulate qualifications and assessments in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland. To regulate the quality and standard of qualifications, Ofqual and its fellow regulators set requirements which must be met by recognised awarding organisations and the qualifications they award.

2.  GCSE science qualifications have had a high profile in recent years, following the serious cause for concern we found when monitoring the version of the qualifications used in 2007 and 2008. Ofqual has now set new criteria for GCSE science, and has accredited new GCSEs for first teaching in September.

3.  This submission to the Science and Technology Committee inquiry into practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips covers the following issue: Do examination boards adequately recognise practical experiments and trips?


4.  On 1 April 2010, the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning (ASCL) Act 2009 formally established Ofqual as a non-ministerial government department which reports directly to Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Ofqual had existed in interim form since 2008. The current Education Bill proposes changes to Ofqual's objectives and governance.

5.  Ofqual regulates and maintains standards by recognising awarding organisations. Only recognised awarding organisations can offer regulated qualifications. All organisations registered can be found at the Register of Regulated Awarding Orqanisation and Qualifications:

Do examination boards adequately recognise practical experiments and trips?

6.  Regulated qualifications must meet the relevant criteria produced by Ofqual. The current criteria for GCSE and GCE sciences both emphasise the skills requirements that are gained through practical investigations and the need for them to be included in the course of study and assessment. For example, in GCSE Science the following are included:

Aims and Learning Outcomes:

—  develop their awareness of risk and the ability to assess potential risk in the context of potential benefits; and

—  develop and apply their observational, practical, enquiry and problem-solving skills and understanding in laboratory, field and other learning environments.

Assessment Objective 2

—  Apply skills, knowledge and understanding of science in practical and other contexts.

7.  Likewise, in GCE (A level) criteria for science subjects the following are included:

Specification content

—  Carry out experimental and investigative activities, including appropriate risk management, in a range of contexts.

Assessment Objective 3

Candidates should be able to:

—  (a)  demonstrate and describe ethical, safe and skilful practical techniques and processes, selecting appropriate qualitative and quantitative methods;

—  (b)  make, record and communicate reliable and valid observations and measurements with appropriate precision and accuracy; and

—  (c)  analyse, interpret, explain and evaluate the methodology, results and impact of their own and others' experimental and investigative activities in a variety of ways.

8.  The criteria do not specify what experiments must be carried out. Nor do the criteria specify that there must be field trips or, indeed, what constitutes a field trip. We are aware that some schools and colleges use their local surroundings to carry out investigations; others take planned (but perhaps costly) trips to field centres.

9.  In summary, the criteria make clear the expectation that learners will experience and acquire experimental skills. But the details of what should be required is left to the awarding organisations responsible. They, in turn, write their specifications to embody sufficient flexibility to enable each school and college to meet the requirements within their constraints of their resources, geographical location and expertise.

Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation

11 May 2011

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Prepared 14 September 2011