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

Written evidence submitted by CLEAPSS (Sch Sci 26)


Founded in 1965, CLEAPSS has promoted effective practical science in schools for over 40 years.

CLEAPSS currently has 13 staff consisting of eight advisers and five support staff.

At its core CLEAPSS is a Consortium of all the Local Education Authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. At present all maintained primary and secondary schools are members of CLEAPSS as are many independent schools, a significant number of colleges and many overseas schools.

CLEAPSS is funded by subscription from Local Authorities (on behalf of their schools) as well as subscriptions directly from individual schools/colleges in other categories. CLEAPSS is independent of any other commercial or non-commercial organisation and as such its advice and guidance is completely impartial.

CLEAPSS provides model risk assessments (MRAs) for practical activities in science, Design & Technology and Art & Design for both primary and secondary phases. Membership of CLEAPSS enables an employer to discharge its duties under the 1975 H&S at Work Act in respect of these subject areas.

In addition to H&S guidance CLEAPSS provides advice on ways to carry out practical activities so that they work, are safe and are effective at supporting learning. CLEAPSS has facilities at its offices on the campus of Brunel University in Uxbridge to enable it to test equipment and try out new ideas for practical work. As a result CLEAPSS staff have developed a wealth of experience devising and evaluating practical activities.

CLEAPSS advice and guidance, contained in publications such as Hazcards and the Recipe book, is recognised by Ofsted and the HSE as the definitive basis for safe practice for practical work in schools.


1.  How important are practical experiments and field trips in science education?

—  (a)  Effective practical work is critical for developing pupils' ability to think scientifically and with this to develop their understanding of how science and scientists have arrived at what we currently understand about the world.

—  (b)  Scientific theories are developed and tested through rigorous analysis of reliable and accurate evidence. Pupils need to be able to recognise accurate, reliable evidence and know how to collect it. Practical work gives pupils the experience of collecting evidence about the behaviour of the real world.

—  (c)  Practical work can be used to support a wide range of learning outcomes for pupils—possibly more than any other individual teaching and learning strategy—the SCORE project "Getting practical" (www.getting explores ways to ensure teachers maximise the impact of practical work on pupils' learning by ensuring clear learning outcomes are identified for each activity.

—  (d)  The UK government clearly recognises the strategic and economic importance of upcoming generations developing high level skills in the sciences, engineering and mathematics. A good supply of young people with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills is important to promote innovation, exploit new technologies, produce world-class scientists and for the UK to compete internationally.

—  (e)  The 2008 SCORE report on practical science in schools in the UK noted as a key finding that the importance of practical work in science is widely accepted and it is acknowledged that good quality practical work promotes the engagement and interest of students as well as developing a wide range of skills, science knowledge and conceptual understanding. In the words of one teacher "science without practical work is like swimming without water".

—  (f)  More recently (14 April 2011), in its response to the Department for Education's Call for Evidence regarding the National Curriculum Review, SCORE stressed the importance of fostering scientific thinking and encouragement of laboratory work. SCORE emphasises that "essential knowledge" in the sciences includes ... the acquisition of procedural skills (particularly those associated with practical laboratory and field work, and analysis), as these are essential for acquiring and testing scientific knowledge.

2.  Are practical experiments in science lessons and science field trips in decline? If they are, what are the reasons for the decline?

Evidence from enquires by schools and colleges to the CLEAPSS Helpline suggests that practical activities are in decline in some, though not all schools. Some of the reasons are outlined below.

—  (a)  A lack of confidence on the part of teachers and technicians arising from:

—  (I)  H&S considerations. These are a contributory factor but CLEAPSS does not believe that H&S issues alone are responsible for declining confidence to carry out practical work with pupils. (see section 3)

—  (II)  Pupil behaviour—Poor pupil behaviour is often cited as preventing practical work. Teachers do not always acknowledge the relationship between good teaching and learning (including effective practical work) and pupil behaviour. As a result many become caught in a cold war type stand-off where the teacher won't do the practical because the pupils won't behave but the pupils won't behave because they are not allowed do the practical work.

—  (III)  Lack of familiarity with practical activities, particularly amongst younger teachers—this is a vicious circle—many young teachers experienced less practical work when they themselves studied science in school—they have no first had experience of many of the practical activities that those from an older generation regard as entitlement experiences for pupils learning about the world around them.

—  (IV)  Experiments that appear not to work. Limited staff/technician expertise can mean that experiments don't work. Teachers lose confidence in practical work and may use computer simulations, or book work, as a substitute. This is evident from the helpline enquires we receive.

—  (b)  Limited access to subject specific CPD—Teachers do not (or are not allowed by senior managers) to attend CPD that would improve their use of practical work, despite there being plenty of opportunities on offer from CLEAPSS and other organisation such as Science Learning Centres, learned societies etc. As a result the majority of CLEAPSS CPD is delivered to technicians who then have the unenviable task of convincing teachers to adopt the ideas. CLEAPSS courses specifically for teachers often fail to recruit because:

—  (I)  Funding—often quoted as a reason for not releasing teachers on CPD. CLEAPSS believes that it is a more question of priorities than of absolute funding.

—  (II)  An inflexible interpretation of the "Rarely Cover" agreement makes it difficult for teachers in many schools to attend CPD.

—  (III)  Excessive focus on short term improvements in pupil outcomes mean that those in schools deciding on CPD priorities rate subject specific CPD lower than generic teaching and learning training.

—  (c)  Insufficient technical support—Effective, meaningful practical work is difficult to realise in schools without adequate support from specialist, knowledgeable technicians. In the present climate technician numbers are being reduced.

—  (d)  Loss of specialism—Many secondary schools no longer have a balance of science teachers across the science specialisms, for example many science departments in London do not have any physics specialists at all. Teachers, teaching outside their specialisms, need to be supported by an appropriately qualified colleague. The lack of such support has a particular impact on practical work as although it may be possible to "mug up" on the theory it is much more difficult to develop the repertoire of techniques needed to support a rich variety of practical experiences.

—  (e)  Teachers have limited opportunities to develop or rehearse practical work. High contact ratios and high lab occupancy rates along with other duties reduce the time available for this essential aspect of developing confidence.

—  (f)  Time constraints. Practical work in many areas of modern biology (microbiology and gene technology in particular) is too complex to be carried out in one lesson. A current move to 50 minutes lessons in many schools is likely to exacerbate this problem. Preparing the equipment can also be time consuming. Equipment costs are high.

—  (g)  Reduced priority for science in years 5 & 6 as a consequence of the removal of the statutory end of key stage tests in science.

—  (h)  An over reliance on uninspiring and poorly researched published schemes. These often contain practical activities that have been re-hashed may times over and feature vague instructions that lead to practical sessions that don't work or in some cases can even be dangerous. (linked to time constraints above and to lack of teacher confidence). The changing nature of the teaching profession means that many teachers no longer see developing new activities (practical or otherwise) as part of their job—they have become deliverers of someone else's ideas.

—  (i)  Limited focus on practical work in Initial Teacher Training (ITT). The time given to developing this aspect varies dramatically across the ITT sector. As an indicator of this, the time spent introducing student teachers to CLEAPSS resources varies between ITT courses from no mention of it at all to a full day of hands on experience using CLEAPSS resources to risk assess practical activities.

—  (j)  Unsuitable accommodation. Despite good advice contained in Building Bulletin 80, Science Accommodation in Secondary Schools, published by the Dept for Education and amplified by CLEAPSS, the design of science teaching spaces in new buildings is frequently poor. Problems reported to CLEAPSS include, inadequate size of rooms, unhelpful layout of the science suite, lab designs which do not lend themselves to class practical work and reduction, from the traditional calculation, in the total number of labs provided. For instance, the rooms may have the gas supply and electrical sockets on the outside wall so that pupils have their back to the teacher or the rooms may have only one or two sinks.

3.  What part do health and safety concerns play in preventing school pupils from performing practical experiments in science lessons and going on field trips? What rules and regulations apply to science experiments and field trips and how are they being interpreted?

—  (a)  Teachers and technicians often cite health and safety law as a deterrent to practical work. This is misguided. The HSE want pupils to experience the handling of chemicals, aspects of hygiene when dealing with microorganisms and be shown how radioactive materials can be manipulated safely.

—  (b)  School science is in reality very safe. Teachers and technicians are however worried about litigation and schools are concerned about insurance claims in case something goes wrong. CLEAPSS is aware that in reality events of this kind are very, very rare and are even if they do occur they are very unlikely to result in a prosecution or civil case against an individual teacher or technician.

—  (c)  CLEAPSS believes that by adopting the "common sense" approach to risk assessment it promotes H&S should not represent and unmanageable burden for teachers or technicians and as such should not prevent exciting and effective practical work from taking place in schools. Under various Regulations (eg COSHH, The Management of Health and Safety at Work, and others) the employer is required to undertake a risk assessment for activities done and materials used as part of the practical work. An employer may provide model (or generic) risk assessments. In science and D&T, the vast majority of school and college employers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland provide the model risk assessments produced by CLEAPSS (SSERC in Scotland). Before undertaking an activity as part of a lesson, a teacher must consult relevant model risk assessment(s) and should adjust or adapt the outcomes of the model risk assessment to meet the needs of their individual circumstances. The significant findings of any risk assessment procedure are best recorded on documents in daily use, such as a scheme of work, lesson plans, worksheets or technician's notes.

—  (d)  Myths abound. A survey in 2005 found that of 40 chemicals or activities thought by callers to the CLEAPSS Helpline to be banned; only two were actually banned nationally.

—  (e)  Impact of recent European legislation, Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures (CLP) and Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & restriction of CHemicals (REACH):

—  (I).  The CLP legislation is indicating additional hazards on a number of chemicals even though in reality the substance has not changed at all—this increases the perceived risk (for example, petroleum jelly is now labelled as a class 1B carcinogen). CLEAPSS is receiving many enquiries from teachers and technicians worried about a perceived greater risk.

—  (II)  REACH—The shift of emphasis to the identification of hazard as opposed to risk (the latter factors in the level of exposure) has already lead Ireland to issue a blanket ban on the use of chemicals identified as "substances of very high concern" (SVHC) in schools. As well as removing certain activities from the schools' curriculum at a stroke CLEAPSS believes this is unnecessarily alarmist and works against a common sense, proportionate, response to risk assessment.

—  (f)  H&S can become a barrier to effective practical work in certain circumstances:

—  (I)  Where schools or colleges engage agencies from outside education to carry out H&S audits. In these circumstances CLEAPSS finds that H&S "inspectors/advisers" in question have little experience of how practical work operates in schools and attempt to apply regulations in a manner more suited to an industrial or commercial context. One of the strengths of CLEAPSS guidance is that it interprets regulations in a manner that makes sense in a school or college context.

—  (II)  Where there is an excessive focus on the product of the risk assessment process—for example attempting to record and store detailed risk assessments for every practical activity. Filing cabinets full of dusty forms do not contribute to safe practice in the classroom.

4.  Do examination boards adequately recognise practical experiments and trips?

—  (a)  CLEAPSS believes that in general the models for assessed practical work, in particular the enquiry based activities, implemented by awarding bodies at GCSE restrict the range of practical work done in schools.

—  (b)  CLEAPSS is involved in advising awarding bodies on the practical component of their assessments. CLEAPSS believes however that its involvement is often at too late a stage in the development process. Over 400 calls to the CLEAPSS Helpline over the last 18 months mentioned the word "assess" or "assessed" and involved problems with assessment activities provided by awarding bodies. Further calls involved activities similar to those known to be used in assessments. Had CLEAPSS been consulted before the activities were published, most of the queries would not have arisen.

—  (c)  Many of the current models of assessing practical skills are so tightly restrictive that many teachers feel they have inadequate time to make proper use of the full range of practical activities that would support good science teaching and learning. Teachers feel obliged to follow particular approaches in order to enable their students to recognise the format of examination questions/assessment items. Pressure from the assessment model can reduce practical work to a formulaic activity akin to jumping through hoops.

—  (d)  Many of the activities on which assessments are based are dated in their approach. As a consequence they can require large amounts of materials which can in turn cause disposal difficulties for technicians as well as having significant cost implications for schools.

—  (e)  CLEAPSS suspects that many assessment activities are devised on the basis of a vague memory of an activity and are not trialled sufficiently before being adopted as formal assessments.

—  (f)  CLEAPSS has found that often insufficient research goes into the availability and costs of the resources used in the activities. Educational science suppliers require advanced warning in order to amass the required stocks of chemicals, microorganisms, enzymes and equipment to satisfy the requirements of thousands of candidates.

5.  If the quality or number of practical experiments and field trips is declining, what are the consequences for science education and career choices? For example, what effects are there on the performance and achievement of pupils and students in Higher Education?

—  (a)  Pupil's choices at post-16 are very closely linked to the subjects they enjoyed at GCSE level. When interviewed about science pupils invariable identify the practical work as the aspect of science they enjoy the most and the one that most helps them learn. Any reduction in practical activity and fieldwork is likely to have a negative impact on recruitment to post 16 sciences.

—  (b)  The employment, FE and HE sectors often comment that students have fewer skills when they arrive now than they had in the past. This can mean that extra tuition, supervision or training is required.

—  (c)  Hazardous materials are encountered in the home, at work, in the garden and certain hobbies. The consequence of mishandling or ingesting these chemicals results in visits to the doctors' surgeries and Accident & Emergency centres. Information collated by RoSPA indicate that at least 9,000 injuries involving a range of hazardous chemicals were recorded per year (data from 2000 -2002, the latest available in their online HASS and LASS database)[15] It is important that schools teach children the life skill of handling hazardous material safely and with respect.

—  (d)  Practical activities in science are an obvious vehicle to teach pupils about risk—developing a sensible approach to evaluating risk is an important life skill for everyone.

6.  What changes should be made?

—  (a)  School technicians deserve greater recognition, a clearly identified career structure and guaranteed access to high quality on-going professional development are needed.

—  (b)  CPD in effective practical work for teachers should be viewed with the same level of importance by senior management as courses which are more obviously aimed at improving examination results. (Ironically more effective use of practical work would improve learning and bring about the very improvements in pupil outcomes that schools seek.)

—  (c)  Greater coordination of activities designed to promote the importance of practical science—for example through an extension of the "Getting Practical" programme to act as a focal point for promotional activities.

—  (d)  Easily accessible resource bank(s) containing detailed instructions of how to carry out a wide range of common science practical activities. Teachers could source reliable/safe practical activities, deciding what the learning outcomes are for their particular lesson. Awarding bodies and publishers could access a range of activities that worked and were safe to include in curriculum materials and assessment items.

—  (e)  A high profile information campaign backed by the HSE (supported by CLEAPSS and SSERC) to ensure that schools and colleges respond appropriately to the changes to chemical labelling associated with CLP and REACH regulation and do not unnecessarily reduce practical activity.

—  (f)  CLEAPSS believes that there is considerable scope to adopt reduced or micro-scale approaches to practical work in schools. Advantages include, reduced hazards leading to greater access for pupils to activities, better model for the techniques used in the "real world", reduced cost and easier disposal with less environmental impact. These techniques are in use widely around the world but are virtually absent from schools in the UK. There should be a concerted effort to promote this approach—for example by including reduced/micro-scale activities as part of formal assessments.

7.  Is the experience of schools in England in line with schools in the devolved administrations and other countries?

—  (a)  CLEAPSS often receives enquiries from teachers, technicians and curriculum developers/publishers in other countries (both in Europe and further afield) requesting permission to use its resources—particularly in relation to risk assessments. From these conversations CLEAPSS is strongly of the opinion that support for and hence practice in practical work—particularly that carried out by pupils—is less well developed elsewhere than it is in the UK.

—  (b)  The United Kingdom has an enviable tradition of practically based teaching in science. There is a risk that practical work in science could be taken for granted (ubiquitous, invisible in plain sight) and as such will not receive the support/development necessary to retain its central role.

Steve Jones

11 May 2011

15   RoSPA Home and Leisure Accident Surveillance System (LASS and HASS), based on data from the then DTI for the UK. This data is no longer being collected. Back

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Prepared 14 September 2011