Written evidence submitted by The Gatsby
Charitable Foundation (Sch Sci 23)|
1. Gatsby is a Charitable Trust set up in 1967
by David Sainsbury (now Lord Sainsbury of Turville) to realise
his charitable objectives. We focus our supportwhich in
2010-11 exceeded £68 millionon the following charitable
and engineering education.
development in selected African countries.
fabric and programming of selected arts institutions.
2. The Committee will no doubt receive considerable
evidence regarding the importance of and possible barriers to
practical work in school science. The Committee also has previous
Select Committee reports to draw upon. We note in particular the
2006 House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report on
"Science Teaching in Schools" and the 2002 House of
Commons Science and Technology Committee report on "Science
Education from 14 to 19", both of which address the issue
of practical science.
3. Given the significant amount of evidence about
the issues with practical work in school science, why do substantial
concerns persist about its decline? Has there been an adequate
response from the government and, where action has been taken,
has it been successful? Perhaps most crucially, to what extent
have government interventions specifically targeted practical
work in school science rather than assume that general policies
to support teaching and learning will somehow address the issues
specific to laboratory-based science?
4. We sincerely hope that this current Inquirywhile
almost certainly needing to reiterate the conclusions of previous
Select Committee reportswill result in more significant
and sustained action being taken to address the longstanding issues
associated with practical science than has hitherto been the case.
With schools facing significant constraints in the resources and
support available to them, we believe there is only a small window
of opportunityperhaps the next three yearsto put
in place the necessary measures to protect the place of practical
science in schools before irreversible decline occurs.
5. The Committee's Inquiry is timely therefore.
Indeed, against the backdrop of Gatsby's longstanding support
for practical work and concerns for its future health, we have
recently embarked on a significant piece of work that, over the
next 12-18 months, will seek to:
an accurate picture of the current health of practical science
in UK secondary schools and make international comparisons where
the current enablers and barriers to effective practical work
that affect schools at a local level;
the likely impact on practical work of the upcoming education
policy changes, including the changes to the National Curriculum,
funding mechanisms, Local Authority involvement and initial teacher
pragmatic recommendations on the action needed to ensure high-quality
practical work occupies a central and sustained role in all secondary
6. Practical work in Primary science education
should build on the natural curiosity of children, enabling them
to experience and explore the material and natural worlds. This
process will continue in secondary schools, but it will be advanced
by the development of discipline-specific skills and the use of
specialist equipment enabling students to use a more abstract
and measured approach. For brevity we refer to these as "laboratory
skills", although noting that this definition should include
the skills that are developed outside of the laboratory through
7. In this submission we report on some of the
early findings of our work. In particular we note the concerns
of universities regarding the laboratory skills of first year
science undergraduates and issues coming to our attention regarding
the impacts of recent policy on practical work. As part of our
work over the coming year we plan to explore the laboratory skills
required by employers and to what degree employer needs are currently
being met by science at school and college.
8. We would be pleased to share our findings
with the Committee as they emerge, and to discuss how the work
of Gatsby might complement the Committee's recommendations for
action by other stakeholders, including the DfE.
9. In April 2011 Gatsby commissioned a small
piece of research exploring the perceptions of science staff in
the 15 Russell Group universities in England (excluding the LSE)
regarding the standard of laboratory skills possessed by new undergraduate
students. 34 respondents from 12 universities completed an online
survey and 12 respondents also participated in follow-up interviews.
10. Our results can only be indicative of issues
that need further investigation, but the Committee might be interested
in the headline findings and quotes from respondents. These are
given in the four points (a) to (d) below. We are still analysing
the results (and defining what a larger-scale study might look
like) but would be willing to share the full report with the Committee
the board, respondents reported that new undergraduates lack at
least some confidence in the lab (100%), and are not well equipped
with lab skills (97%). Specific deficits in lab skills included
manual dexterity, the ability to set up apparatus and making accurate
find it difficult to diagnose and think through problems and are
quick to blame equipment rather than their own technique."
can't apply these tools and these skills outside the narrow environment
in which they were taught."
29% of our respondents reported a decline in the last five years
in new undergraduates' scientific knowledge, over half
(57%) felt that the level of laboratory skills had declined in
the same period. This was despite all respondents (100%) stating
they had increased the grades required for entry to their courses.
it fluctuates from year to year it is noticeable that at entry
students lack confidence in the lab, and the situation is getting
our increased entry requirements we have some excellent students
with a deep understanding of concepts but our average to lower
ability students struggle more now than 10 years ago."
largest factor contributing to the lack of lab skills was cited
as students' limited exposure to practical work at school. Respondents
reported teaching students who had done very little practical
work and whose teachers relied heavily on demonstrations and/or
students are telling us that they have done no practical work
at school so they struggle with basic skills like using a microscope,
with which they previously would have had some experience."
of them claim to never have carried out an experiment only watched
teacher/videos of. Most of them have no idea how to act in a lab
or where to even begin when carrying out an experiment, ie no
idea what equipment is called."
teaching staff have made a number of changes to their lab-based
teaching in response to the change in skills of new undergraduates,
including: simplifying first-year lab courses by providing more
step-by-step instructions, removing complex experiments or allowing
more time; increasing the focus and/or time spent on basic skills;
increasing the levels of support through more staff time or demonstrators;
and introducing online pre-labs.
have redesigned the whole first year courseremoving much
of the material previously taught and starting at a lower level
and with much less expected in each class."
through the [undergraduate] lab course is to an extent set back
by the poor standard of skills among the intake. This has a knock-on
effect on the types of experiments, and their complexity, that
we can offer in the later years of the degree."
11. We believe that even this small-scale survey
should elicit concern regarding how well schools and colleges
are preparing students for entry into science degree courses.
These indications become all the more stark when one considers
that: (1) the universities surveyed are taking the best A-level
students (the reported entry requirements ranged from BBB to A*AAA);
and (2) that all universities are increasingly operating in a
more competitive environment where finances are stretched and
the pressure to widen their student intake will continue.
12. Gatsby recently submitted evidence to the
government's current review of the National Curriculum in which
we set out our thinking on the purposes for practical work and
our recommendations for the review team. A copy of our submission
is available on request; the points relevant to this Inquiry are
13. The main purposes of practical work in the
curriculum are to:
the learning of science concepts and explanations;
understanding of the processes of science; and
14. Since the introduction of the National Curriculum
there has been a steady erosion of the teaching of laboratory
skills. This erosion is a cause of significant concern to industry
and higher education institutions. Reversing this trend would
also increase the engagement of young people in science and lead
to greater participation in science post-16.
15. It is unacceptable that the assessment of
laboratory skills has been reduced to the point where a GCSE student
who is unable to, for example, use a microscope or heat measured
volumes of liquid without breaking test tubes is still able to
achieve maximum marks for their practical work as long as they
can write about how they should have done it.
16. The current National Curriculum review is
an opportunity to re-examine the role of practical work. In particular,
the review must ensure that the Science Curriculum sets high expectations
of attainment in the laboratory skills that employers and higher
17. We recommend that:
National Curriculum review team should provide an impact assessment
to show explicitly how any changes to the Science Curriculum will
actively encourage better practical work in schools.
Science National Curriculum should state explicitly the laboratory
skills that students are expected to develop at each Key Stage.
review must ensure that the National Curriculum allows sufficient
time and space for teachers to undertake a much wider range of
practical activities with their students than is currently the
review must consider how the requirements of the National Curriculum
regarding practical work at Key Stage 4 can be translated into
assessment objectives across the range of science GCSEs.
review should involve higher education and employers in a much
more meaningful way than has been the case in previous National
Curriculum reviews. Included within these discussions should be
a focus on ensuring that employer and HE requirements for laboratory
skills are met, something we believe has been wholly absent from
18. As part of our new study into practical work
we have begun to visit schools and talk to Awarding Organisations,
Local Authority advisers and CPD providers in order to better
understand the barriers to practical work and what might be done
to alleviate them.
19. In our preliminary work it is clear that
recent changes to the educational landscape may well have an impact
on practical work and we highlight some particular areas for further
investigation below. We hope the Committee will engage the DfE
in discussion on these issues.
Laboratories and preparation rooms
20. We still hear of too many schools where practical
work is limited by the amount of laboratory, preparation and storage
space available, despite many of these schools going through refurbishment
or being new builds. Particularly worrying are reports that some
Academies have reduced the number of labs and prep areas and therefore
may be compromising the quality of their science provision.
21. We would be interested to hear what plans
the DfE has to ensure all schools (including Academies and Free
Schools) adhere to the guidelines it itself has produced on the
accommodation necessary for practical science.
School budgets and science equipment
22. The cost of some equipment and consumables
associated with practical work remains prohibitive for some schools,
and the number of schools and range of equipment that fall into
this category are both likely to increase in the coming years
as schools' budgets come under increasing pressure. A school science
department must balance the costs of kit essential for practical
work with the substantial demands for photocopying, stationery
23. The constant upheaval in the curriculum will
continue to divert funds away from practical equipment towards
new textbooks and work sheets; schools would benefit from a period
of curriculum stability in order to focus their resources on improving
their science provision.
24. While we appreciateand supportthe
government's commitment to devolve to individual schools decision-making
on issues such as budgeting, it will be crucial in the coming
years that headteachers, senior management teams and governors
are helped to understand the importance of practical science.
Without government support for thiseven if only in Ministerial
announcements and the DfE guidance material issued alongside the
new National Curriculumit is likely that the status of
practical science will continue to decline in schools.
25. Finally, some schools successful in increasing
uptake of the sciences at A-Level are telling us they are likely
to struggle to afford the extra equipment needed to provide these
students with quality practical work. Some schools have told us
that the decrease in post-16 funding for sixth forms from the
Young People's Learning Agency (to bring schools into line with
FE Colleges) will impact on practical provision, particularly
in schools successful in motivating more students to continue
with science into A-Level. More research is required to understand
how widespread this effect is likely to be and we would encourage
the Committee to explore this issue with its witnesses.
Teacher training and Professional Development
26. Teaching laboratory skills and undertaking
practical experiments demands expertise and experience from science
teachers, so it would be expected that it should form an explicit
part of their training and professional development. For trainee
teachers, however, it is not clear who has responsibility for
this part of their trainingtheir university or their placement
schools. There is therefore a risk that it occurs in neither,
or is overly dependent on the status of practical science in the
27. The DfE should use the review of standards
for Qualified Teacher Status to clarify the expectations for science
teachers to have appropriate competencies in practical work.
28. Local Authorities have traditionally played
a pivotal role in networking science departments from different
schools through the offices of a science consultant and/or adviser.
At the height of the last government's "National Strategies"
programme this regional field force numbered around 300, but since
the government decided to end the National Strategies and reduce
the role for Local Authorities in school support, the number has
dwindled to about 40. It is no longer clear from where schools
can rely on getting advice on practical teaching, or who will
take responsibility for networking science departments so that
practice can be shared.
29. The Committee may wish to ask the DfE what
plans it has to ensure that schools still have access to the support
and advice on practical science (including health and safety)
previously freely available to schools from Local Authority advisers
30. It is disappointing that successive governments
appear to have had so little interest in supporting the role of
school science technicians, despite the potential for developing
them as key staff in supporting more efficient management of purchasing
and use of equipment and materials.
31. School science technicians provide essential
support for practical work, particularly in schools where the
department is dominated by inexperienced teachers or where staff
turnover is high. And yet the pay and conditions of technicians
are appalling, including a lack of real career structure, term-time
only contracts and lack of support for professional development.
32. This is as true now as it was in 2002, when
the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee reported:
"The pay and conditions under which technicians
are employed strike us as downright exploitative. We can see no
reason why technicians should be paid during the term time only.
Those technicians who prefer not to work during the holidays,
carrying out essential tasks such as equipment maintenance, should
be employed on part-time contracts; others should be treated like
teachers and paid an annual full-time salary. The lack of opportunities
for career or pay progression needs to be addressed."
33. Nine years on, we still agree. We hope that
the current Inquiry will lead to more progress in this area than
has hitherto been the case.
Health and Safety
34. Concerns regarding health and safety are
often used to explain a reduction in the amount of practical work
undertaken in a school. We have heard a number of science teachers,
even some in high-performing schools, speculate on practicals
which might or might not be banned. However, there are almost
no national bans on practical work in science.
35. In the past, schools have been able to consult
their Local Authority science adviser/consultant or the national
organisation CLEAPSS for advice and support on risk assessments
and safe management of practicals. With the demise of Local Authority
advisory roles (see paragraph 28), we are concerned that decisions
regarding health and safety, and on which science practicals are
"allowable", may be taken by individuals who do not
have the necessary experience, or access to external expertise.
36. We would encourage the Committee to ask the
DfE what sustainable mechanisms the Department proposes for ensuring
that all school science departments have access to correct, authoritative
advice on health and safety in practical work.
Curriculum, qualifications and timetabling
37. In an effort to strengthen science education
at Key Stage 4 and increase progression to post-16 sciences the
government has supported increased participation in Triple Science
(three separate GCSEs in physics, chemistry and biology) among
14-16 year olds. We support these moves. However we have been
told that many schools have not been able to allocate Triple Science
any more teaching time than "double science" (two GCSEs),
and that practical work has suffered as a result.
38. If this means that students studying physics,
chemistry and biology at GCSE in order to progress to A-Level
sciences and beyond are gaining fewer laboratory skills, this
is clearly a situation that needs rectifying. We suggest the Committee
might wish to investigate how widespread this issue is when questioning
witnesses and also to press the DfE on what research it has undertaken
or has planned on the curriculum time schools are dedicating to
Triple Science and the subsequent effect on practical work.
Science & Engineering Education Team
The Gatsby Charitable Foundation
11 May 2011
14 "Science Education from 14 to 19" (July
2002), House of Commons Committee on Science & Technology. Back