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

Written evidence submitted by the Teacher Scientist Network (TSN) (Sch Sci 34)


Herein we highlight the unique and highly important role practical science provides to young people of all ages. There are many real barriers in the classroom to providing effective science practical lessons and these barriers - the types of investigations, a lack of curriculum time, resources, and the support of teaching staff and money - are often compounded together to have a detrimental effect upon young peoples understanding and ability in the sciences. This lengthy supply chain from school to University to STEM employers is adversely affected along its length potentially damaging the recovery of UK plc and its places a world leader in Science and Technology. Suggestions and exemplars follow.


This submission, on behalf of the Teacher Scientist Network, has been prepared by Dr. Philip H. Smith, MBE, coordinator. It represents the views of the teacher-dominated TSN Steering Group that guide our activities. These are geared towards enhancing local school science in Norfolk and North Suffolk with the active involvement of the local science community.

Our teacher membership numbers approximately 300 teachers who teach science at all phases of education: primary to sixth-form. TSN was formed in 1994 and is a registered charity receiving funding from a variety of sources through grant-income. TSN is independent from but generously hosted by John Innes Centre in Norwich providing a strategic base for our activities within the Norwich Research Park.


1. It is widely accepted that future developments in Science and Technology will underpin the growth and development of the UK economy and UK plc. Such developments require an ongoing supply chain of talented pupils both interested and able to push forward the boundaries of our present understanding in science. How can we help foster this supply chain? Whilst knowledge and facts about science can be gathered from peer reviewed journals, text books and the internet, the opportunity to engage young people in "learning by doing" in carrying out their own investigations and experiments is a unique facet of science the importance of which needs to recognised by school authorities and regulatory organisations everywhere. Such opportunities engage learners of all ages, exciting them and contributing to their wish to study the sciences further at University and beyond.

2. However, we accept that only a small percentage of pupils will become future scientists. The remainder of the pupil population will become those, who unless they have a thorough understanding of science, potentially mistrust science and scientists and are more easily led by misleading media headlines. We would argue therefore that our aspiration for a more "scientifically literate society" will support the development of a strong science base in the UK.

3. These aspirations require mechanisms to develop the innate curiosity and knowledge in our young people about the world around them and the way in which the world and its components are organised and work. Practical science lessons and science field trips are powerful, and almost unique, ways to achieve this.

4. Every week the feedback TSN receives from our teacher members supports the idea that practical experiments in science lessons and science field trips are in decline. The reasons for this are cited as a packed curriculum, heavily dominated by knowledge gathering (with implications on timetable time for practicals) and, in some cases, a lack of resources.


5. In 2009, Darwin year, when working with teachers to develop resources to aid teaching and learning in Evolution, high school teachers suggested to us that they were required to cover the topic in about 3 hours of teaching time which clearly leaves very little time for practical investigations once the theory component has been covered.

6. Time will also have an impact on the use of field trips. Many curriculum areas will be enhanced by visits to science institutes or science departments of local Higher Education Institutes (HEIs), many of which are keen to host such visits). The House of Lords Science Committee, Science in Society, February 2000 were actively encouraging research scientists to facilitate such visits, "It is the responsibility of research scientists to communicate to the rest of us the excitement of making new discoveries and the importance & implications of their work." Research centres like the John Innes Centre and the Institute of Food Research (both funded by the BBSRC) ably support staff and students in enhancing the student experience of such visits to the site. Such visits enable the applied nature of the science they are learning in school to be actively demonstrated.

7. The combination of coach costs and the impact of a half or full-day "away from school" makes many teachers question making such visits even though their value (when well organised) has been recognised for sometime. The ASE Chief Executive was quoted in June 2002 saying "science education in schools can only benefit when teachers and pupils have direct contact with professional scientists and the world of work."

8. This problem however is not a new one - the Teacher Scientist Network (TSN) was formed in 1994, at the launch of the then "new" national Curriculum. TSN facilitates the formation of 1:1 long-term, sustainable links between teachers and scientists, who work in partnership, allowing the scientist to bring "real-science" direct to the classroom. This eliminates the problems associated with time away from the classroom but still presents a challenge to be able to carry out engaging and relevant practical's in the limited time allocated to practical science in the classroom or laboratory. A range of other activities - Master Classes, Kit Club endeavour to bringing teachers closer to "real life science." Most importantly TSN activity is delivered in a "bottom-up" way providing what teachers ask for, not what some large organisation, removed from the classroom, thinks they need.


9. When the National Curriculum was introduced the Norwich Research Park was approached to consider how best the science community could be used to support local science teaching. It was felt that the most effective mechanism was to make long-term partnerships between teachers and scientists. At this time, primary science teachers did not feel confident enough to teach science effectively (and this situation continues today1) and high school teachers were concerned that they were not up-to-date. TSN continues to make these links, and currently has approximately 60 partnerships operating across Norfolk and North Suffolk. These scientists are supported by senior managers from across the Norwich Research Park allowing staff to take time out to work with their teacher partners in the classroom. The work is vital and supports the development of teacher confidence to successfully implement practical sessions in the classroom that are well-designed and addressing real-life research challenges (and therefore more engaging). Whilst the value of practical science cannot be under-estimated, it is important the practical is done well.

10. In calling for more to be done to raise the profile of practical science, TSN urges the Committee to recognise that good practical's in school science lesson are facilitated by good teachers themselves supported by good science technicians. Good teachers are those who are confident teachers, up-to-date in their subject knowledge and practically adept themselves. These teachers will be those most able to inspire future scientists.

11. The development of such teachers begins with the training of new teachers (best supported by the post-graduate certificate of education (PGCE) delivered widely at HEI's around the UK). Students on the PGCE science course offered by the University of East Anglia, benefit from a 1-day workshop about using modern biotechnology procedures in the classroom (teachers learning "on the job" do not have such opportunities). Techniques such as restriction digestions, polymerase chain reaction, bacterial transformations are ubiquitous in life-science laboratories around the world and in the classroom offer pupils the chance to experience relevant modern laboratory techniques. Providing trainee teachers with the skills to carry out these practicals in their own classroom increases the likelihood that such practical lessons will engage and inspire young people. The other component of this, the availability of sufficient resources to carry-out the practical, is addressed in paragraph 15 below.

12. Beyond their PGCE, teachers need to be able to keep up-to-date. To achieve this they need to receive sufficient, high-quality continued professional development (cpd) enabled by the full support of the Senior Leadership Team (SLT). The enabling aspect includes non-teaching time or time away from school and the funds to support attendance on courses. The continued support of the Department of Education for the Science Learning Centre Network is to be applauded but too often such centres are not able to recruit sufficient numbers of teachers on their courses because of the absence of senior management support for science cpd (in terms of funding and time and the rarely cover issue). As a result many of the courses offered by the SLC's are required to focus upon assessment diluting the subject knowledge component.

13. TSN actively promotes the GIFT workshop for teachers. A 2.5 day, pan -European workshop to enrich teachers subject knowledge with a different theme each year. As the UK representative for this event, TSN has found it increasingly difficult to fill its quota of 4-funded places for UK teachers particularly in the last 2 years. Strong anecdotal evidence from TSN teachers suggests that finding support from the SLT for 3 days away from school to develop their subject knowledge cannot be justified. The workshop is held in parallel with the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly and so the dates are fixed by this event. Teachers receive from the EGU a stipend to cover accommodation, meals and travel.

14. TSN's Master Class programme for high-school teachers continues to provide an almost unique opportunity for teachers to focus upon their subject knowledge, reinvigorating their interest in a subject and bringing themselves up-to-date in a particular topic. Topics for TSN Master Classes are suggested by teachers themselves and not designed to cover just curriculum material. The bigger picture enthuses and excites teachers, and the more able ones extract components of the day to enrich their teaching. The Master Class programme ( includes lectures from leading academics from around the UK in the morning and relevant practical activities in the afternoon.


15. So often teachers reported to TSN that they lacked the resources to carry out practical science (particularly in primary schools). With this in mind, TSN started to develop its Kit Club in 2000 to provide a library of free-to-loan resources for teachers to borrow. They both encourage hands-on investigative science and provide essential curriculum materials (eg. torso and skeleton) that schools don't have the budget or space to provide ( Again, the content of the Kit Club is built upon teacher input - what teachers ask for to help them deliver more hands-on science in their classrooms. Importantly many of the resources facilitate hands-on, investigative science, recognising the true value of experiential learning in the classroom.

16. The rapid and sustained growth of TSN's Kit Club (both in terms of the number of schools who are registered users (presently 213), and the number of kits available to loan (100), is evidence of the limited availability of sufficient, high-quality, affordable resources in schools, particularly primary schools. Such deficiencies clearly would have a negative impact on practical science teaching in our schools were it not for the availability of TSN' free-to-loan resources in the Kit Club.


17. Heath and Safety concerns have certainly had a negative impact on the amount of practical work carried out in UK schools. Although, the direct impact may be less than the perceived impact. In other words, many teachers believe certain practicals are banned when in fact they are not (a report by the RSC in 2005 supported this perception, Another RSC publication first published in 1995 (Classic Chemistry Demonstrations: One Hundred Tried and Tested Experiments) was subsequently cited by Harrison2 as timely to support chemistry teachers, ).

18. Additionally, the lengths teachers must now go to to provide documented risk assessments has certainly hindered their willingness to organise practical lessons. Risk assessments are carried out before a practical and teachers try to think of every possibility, but children are sure to come up with some direction you hadn't anticipated! That of course is the beauty and thrill of open-ended investigations, allowing children to follow and develop their own curiosity, yet this can be constrained by health and safety.


19. Whilst the timing of this inquiry is to be applauded, TSN feels the focus on 11-18 is an oversight. The central understanding of how to carry-out a scientifically valid investigation is laid down in primary schools ("a fair-test"). Additionally, with the preponderance of non-specialist teachers in the primary sector, many find the scientific enquiry aspect of the curriculum difficult to teach. Regretably, many primary practicals tend to be very prescriptive, and therefore predictable, suppressing both the teachers and pupils enthusiasm. The consequence of this is that some pupils will have decided that "science is not for them" by aged 11 so potentially the raft of 14-19 initiatives will be lost on such pupils.

20. Teachers also report to us that the practical investigations at KS4 for GCSE are very ineffective at preparing students to feel confident with the scientific method.

21. The lack of practical experience has huge impacts at university level. Many students do not know how to do quite simple manipulations such as filtration or the correct use of a burette or a pipette. The lack of teaching basic laboratory and field skills in schools, undermines any attempt to teach these subjects at an advanced level and impacts on the skills base offered to employers seeking to employ technician grade employees aged 16+.


22. TSN believes that the curriculum needs to provide more opportunity for open-ended investigations at all ages - primary through to sixth-form. The relevance and importance of following the scientific methods needs to emphasised and learnt by doing. The science community should be encouraged and enabled to support science locally (after all it is in their own interests). Pupils respond differently to "their scientists" than "their teachers" and this can have positive outcome on their learning.

23. In highlighting what appears to be a need for curriculum change, TSN is conscious that the one thing teachers would welcome is a sustained period of time without change! This would allow time for the many preceding changes to become embedded and some formal evaluation of success or failure to be gauged. During this time, certainly the creative and talented teachers (of whom there are many) may feel galvanised to research and develop their own new practicals. The withdrawl of KS3 SATs has certainly provided a small opportunity for them to do this. However, at the end of the day, senior managers will need a curriculum / performance driver in order to actively promote such an opportunity and this would need to be identified.


—  1.  Harlen, W. Science as a key component of the primary curriculum: a rationale with policy implications. Perspectives on Education 1 (Primary Science), 2008: 4-18.

—  2.  Harrison, T. Review of "Classic Chemistry Demonstrations: 100 tried and tested experiments by Ted Lister, in Science in School Issue 13, Autumn 2009.  

Declaration of Interests

The coordinator of the Teacher Scientist Network ia a member of the partners executive of the East of England Science Learning Centres, based at Bayfordbury, Herts. The SLC network is referred to above in Paragraph 12 (

The TSN Steering Group comprises teachers from across the region from primary and secondary education and representatives from each of the Institutes and HEI's supporting TSN's activity. Affiliations of the members of the TSN Steering group can be found at

Teacher Scientist Network

11 May 2011

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Prepared 14 September 2011