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

Written evidence submitted by The Association for Science Education Outdoor Science Working Group (Sch Sci 39)

The Association for Science Education (ASE) is the largest subject association in the UK. Members include teachers, technicians and others involved in science education. The Association plays a significant role in promoting excellence in teaching and learning of science in schools and colleges. Working closely with the science professional bodies, industry and business, ASE provides a UK-wide network bringing together individuals and organisations to share ideas and tackle challenges in science teaching, develop resources and foster high quality Continuing Professional Development. The Association for Science Education can trace its origins back to 1900. Incorporated by Royal Charter in October 2004, the ASE operates as a Registered Charity.

The Outdoor Science Working Group (OSWG) was convened by ASE in 2004 in response to a long and continuing decline in the use of outdoor fieldwork to teach science in the UK's schools, particularly at secondary level. The OSWG feels that this is detrimental to the quality of science education and reduces the opportunities for children to appreciate everything that science has to offer them, both as future citizens and potential recruits to science careers. The ASE OSWG is chaired by ASE, and includes representatives from university science education departments including King's College London, Keele, Birmingham and Southampton, and science education bodies such as Field Studies Council (FSC), Science and Plants in Schools (SAPS) and British Ecological Society (BES).

1. This response is submitted in addition to the SCORE response covering practical work and fieldwork in science, to which ASE contributed as a member organisation of SCORE.

2. This response focuses on fieldwork aspects and draws on two reports from ASE's OSWG in 2011[63] and 2007[64]. This response is informed by evidence from members of ASE's OSWG and their organisations together with an ASE survey of science teachers and others involved in science education. The survey evidence presented here is a summary of responses from 388 teachers who contributed to an online survey carried out by ASE in 2011[65]. 90% of respondents were secondary school teachers in England, with subject teaching equally divided across science disciplines (35% Physics; 33% Chemistry; 32% Biology).These data have not been published previously.

Are science field trips in decline? If they are, what are the reasons for the decline?

3. The survey data indicates there is a huge range in provision between schools, ranging from regular trips for most years to none at all. Whereas most teachers (67%) thought that the level of provision had remained the same as previous years, a significant minority (29%) felt that it had declined. Only 4% thought that it had increased. Stated reasons for the decline included inadequate time available for planning and taking students out of classroom, disruption to school timetables and increasingly, a lack of funding.

4. Elsewhere, there is strong evidence from a variety of sources including a survey in 2010 indicating a decline in the number and duration of biological fieldtrips over the past 40 years.[66]

5. The survey data indicates that 33% of respondents feel inexperience of teachers in carrying out practical work is an issue and 22% indicated that they would welcome more professional development opportunities to develop their confidence with practical work. ASE's OSWG has consistently identified that there is a shortage of secondary science teachers with the confidence, competence and commitment to lead fieldwork. In response, the ASE OSWG has released two reports[67] which have made recommendations to remedy this shortage.

How important are field trips in science education?

6. Over two thirds (68.3%) of teachers feel that field trips are important or very important. Table 1 summarises the overall responses.

Secondary Primary
Very Important 29.1% 0.0%
Important 39.2%81.8%
Mildly Important22.6% 18.2%
Not Important4.0%0.0%

Table 1. 2011 ASE teachers' survey. How important are field trips in science education?

7. The importance of field trips is also evidenced both through the level of activity (see Figure 1) that is going on, but also the strength of accompanying statements.

Figure 1. ASE 2011 survey. How many field trips have you undertaken or intend to carry out in the 2010/2011 academic year?


8. "My fondest memories of my A level course were the field trips and they formed my desire for science and to teach. They are about seeing science in context and not in theory, whether it is seaweed on a rocky shore, fossils in a quarry or the Haber process in a chemical plant. Good field trips are more than discovery; they are also about teamwork, leadership and other personal skills."

9. "Field trips show that science is for real and not just something that is done at school. They give a greater understanding of the world of science. They can help generate more interest and can help spark the less interested students. They can show students a possible way forward for careers. They can help students understand the real world around them."

10. "Out of classroom science enables pupils to understand the complexity of the real world and how it can be investigated. It provides opportunities for learning how to observe, raise questions, investigate in contexts where there is often not a "right answer" and deal with "messy" data (data that shows variation and therefore consideration needs to be given as to its quality). Many real world issues involve such "messy" data - it is important that students learn that evidence is seldom as clear cut as in a contrived lab-based experiment. Uncertainty in data is inevitable and students need to learn that this is inherent in science and not the fault of the scientists "doing it wrong"."

11. "Field trips allow pupils to experience environments and activities that they may not otherwise have access to (due to socio-economic factors, location, etc). Field trips encourage pupils to develop an appreciation of the environment and the need for environmental conservation and sustainability. Field trips to museums and workplaces allow pupils to learn about science in context and provide future opportunities for STEM careers."

12. The survey data indicates that field trips involve all age phases (activity as a proportion of total secondary school field trips are shown in brackets below), but also notes with concern that barriers are most pronounced at GCSE (Key Stage 4) level:

—  Key Stage 3 (34%)

—  Key Stage 4 (22%)

—  A level, 16-19 (46%).

13. Field trips can occur at any time of the academic year (activity as a proportion of total secondary school field trips are shown in brackets below), but most activity is disproportionately placed in the post exam period in Summer Term, mainly because of exam and timetabling constraints, and the increased availability of cover staff:

—  Autumn Term (17%)

—  Spring term (16%)

—  Summer Term (67%).

14. A wide range of sites and activities are being used by UK teachers, which include (in declining order, with number of references in brackets):

—  Ecology sites/local habitats (including school grounds) (63)

—  Field Centres (28)

—  Museums (21)

—  Wildlife park/zoos (19)

—  Science/technology centres (19)

—  Space centres (incl. CERN) (16)

—  Universities (15)

—  Industry (16)

—  Farms (8)

—  Botanical gardens (5).

Others (<5) included: hospitals, powers stations, theme parks, research labs, mines and quarries, aquaria, reservoir, army barracks and a recycling plant.

What part do health and safety concerns play in preventing school pupils from going on field trips? What rules and regulations apply to field trips and how are they being interpreted?

16. Table 2 below summarises the responses of teachers to the barriers to practical work. It is likely that health and safety concerns will be more prominent when considering field trips and these undoubtedly act as a deterrent. However, a large number of written responses identified the administration and paperwork - including the need to find and fund staff cover - as the main obstacles, rather than the health and safety risks themselves.

How much of a barrier do you consider these issues to be when deciding whether to carry out practical work in science at your school?
 Greatest Barrier Less of a Barrier Not a Barrier Response counts
Resources and facilities36.6% (111) 41.3% (125)22.1% (67) 303
Teachers' inexperience32.6% (99) 41.4% (126)26.0% (79) 304
Health and safety15.8% (48) 53.3% (162)30.9% (94) 304
Technical support21.8% (66) 45.2% (137) 33.0% (100) 303
Exams and assessment45.2% (137) 38.3% (116)16.5% (50) 303
Pupils' behaviour37.9% (114) 43.2% (130)18.9% (57) 301
Curriculum (content and resources)38.5% (116) 49.5% (149) 12.0% (36) 301
Time52.1% (158)37.3% (113) 10.6% (32)303
CPD Provision15.9% (47) 52.2% (154)31.9% (94)295
Answered question 306

Skipped question 82

Others please specify 31

Table 2 ASE survey 2011

17. ASE's OSWG welcomes many of the findings of Lord Young's Review[68] and his proposals to simplify the process that schools and other organisations undertake before taking children on outdoor learning experiences.

Do examination boards adequately recognise science field trips?

18. The survey data indicates that nearly three quarters (71%) of the teachers who expressed an opinion (Yes or No, n=160) felt that examination boards did not adequately recognise the work carried out on field trips (71%, n=160). It was noted that some awarding organisations had stronger recommendations than others. Some commented that a stronger recommendation would support a greater take up of field trips.

19. Elsewhere evidence links the amount of fieldwork to curriculum and assessment. Fieldwork has not been compulsory in the national curriculum for science, unlike geography. As a result, geography numbers have grown for the Field Studies Council courses over 20 years, replacing science as the major contributing subject to Field Studies Council visitor numbers. Geography teachers are twice as likely to do residential fieldwork at Key Stage 3, and ten times more likely at GCSE level; they were also twice as likely to do local fieldwork at both levels.[69]

If the quality or number of 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?

20. The OSWG believes that a continuing decline in field trips will lead to a downward spiral in provision. For example, an increasing the number of science graduates who lack prior experience in fieldwork will reduce the number of trainee and early career science teachers with the confidence, competence and commitment to teach fieldwork themselves.

21. A reduction in field trips will affect the quality of science education - for example weakening the opportunities to observe and practice the learning of science in the context of the "real world", reducing the chances of a wider range of learners to fulfill their potential and weakening the development of critical skills such as data handling and analysis. The main sources of inspiration and motivation for some students will disappear, thus reducing potential recruitment to the UK's science knowledge base.

22. This is of particular concern with the pressing need to address the world's major environmental challenges. It is noted that the UKCES4 report[70] highlights the areas of conservation and environmental protection as being one of the biggest growth areas in terms of employment over the last 10 years. By 2020, approximately 4% of the work force will be involved in "green jobs" in a variety of capacities with education standards including level 2-4 and beyond 5; many of which will include elements of fieldwork. Similarly, the NERC funded ERFF report 7[71] highlights fieldwork as being one of it's ten most wanted skills required for the next ten years, highlighting a decline in the knowledge base in this area.

What changes should be made?

23. The evidence from this research and earlier ASE OSWG-hosted national workshops points to the wide-ranging educational benefits of teaching and learning science through fieldwork in the natural and built environments. These benefits are widely recognised;[72] yet despite the strengths and advantages that fieldwork can bring to teaching at all ages, there has been a decline in the provision and condition of outdoor education in science. ASE's OSWG believes that this trend is detrimental to science education.

24. The recommendations below will provide a strong foundation for a shared and coherent approach towards increased uptake and improved quality of teaching and learning through fieldwork in science education.

Recommendation 1

Reviews of initial teacher training, Qualified Teacher Status standards and continuing professional development such as the current independent review of qualifications to raise the standards of teaching, led by Sally Coates, must ensure that fieldwork training is expected and provided for all trainee science teachers. All trainee science teachers should be expected to prepare and lead at least one fieldwork session themselves, and to take part in a fieldwork trip. A co-coordinated programme of teacher training in fieldwork should therefore be established to promote effective pedagogy for all university tutors and school teachers involved in pre-service and early career training.

Recommendation 2

A dedicated outdoor science web-site, aimed at teachers, technicians and outdoor educators, should be created to signpost, exchange and compare high-quality fieldwork training resources. The website should encompass local and context-specific support and include contacts for expert advisers, local support networks, existing good practice, training events and fieldwork providers as well as published materials.

Recommendation 3

Performance management and designations (for example, to AST or Excellent Teacher level) should include an opportunity for early-career teachers to demonstrate their effective use of fieldwork and for more experienced teachers to demonstrate their own role in providing fieldwork training for colleagues in other departments and schools (including across age phases and transitions).

Recommendation 4

Awarding bodies should be provided with the flexibility and support to significantly increase open-ended summative assessment and assessments that recognise skills which are primarily developed through fieldwork.

Recommendation 5

A coordinated research programme should be developed to further investigate the full range of educational impacts of fieldwork in science including case studies in formal/ informal contexts, day/residential venues, local/remote sites and rural/urban communities.

Recommendation 6

Leading educational bodies, learned societies and high-profile supporters of outdoor education should use their combined influence to support positive attitudes towards fieldwork in science amongst their contacts and audiences (including headteachers, governors and parents). These institutions and individuals should focus particularly on areas such as raising the profile of fieldwork in whole school policies and development plans, a reduction in health and safety bureaucracy and the development of in-service professional development programmes.

Marianne Cutler
ASE Director of Curriculum Innovation and Chair of ASE's OSWG
Association for Science Education Outdoor Science Working Group

10 May 2011

63   Outdoor Science Working Group (2011). Outdoor Science. A co-ordinated approach to high-quality teaching and learning in fieldwork for science education. Association for Science Education/Nuffield Foundation. Field Studies Council Occasional Publication 144. Back

64   Outdoor Science Working Group (2007). Initial Teacher Education and the Outdoor Classroom: Standards for the Future. Field Studies Council and Association for Science Education. Field Studies Council Occasional Publication 122.  Back

65   ASE survey of teachers on practical work and field work, 388 responses including smaller numbers of responses on specific fieldwork questions (April 2011)  Back

66   Lock, R. (2010). Biology fieldwork in schools and colleges in the UK: an analysis of empirical research from 1963-2009. Journal for Biological Education 2: 58-34 Back

67   Outdoor Science Working Group (2011). Outdoor Science. A co-ordinated approach to high-quality teaching and learning in fieldwork for science education. Association for Science Education/Nuffield Foundation. Field Studies Council Occasional Publication 144.

Outdoor Science Working Group (2007). Initial Teacher Education and the Outdoor Classroom: Standards for the Future. Field Studies Council and Association for Science Education. Field Studies Council Occasional Publication 122. Back

68   Common Sense; Common Safety (2010)  Back

69   Tilling, S. (2004). Fieldwork in UK secondary schools: influences and provision. Journal of Biological Education 38 (2): 54-58. Back

70   Skills for Jobs: Today and Tomorrow (2010) Back

71   Most Wanted Postgraduate Skills Needs in the Environment Sector  Back

72   Dierking, L. et al. (2003) Policy statement of the "informal science education" ad hoc committee House of Commons Education and Skills Committee (2005) Education outside the classroom Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (2006) Learning outside the classroom manifesto House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee (2010) Transforming education outside the classroom Ofsted (2010) Science Survey Visits. Generic grade descriptors and supplementary subject-specific guidance for inspectors on making judgements during visits to schools Back

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Prepared 14 September 2011