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


Written evidence submitted by NASUWT (Sch Sci 40)

The NASUWT's submission sets out the Union's views on the key issues identified by the Committee in the terms of reference for the inquiry and is based upon the work of its representative committees and other structures, made up of practising teachers and lecturers working in all relevant sectors of the education system.

The NASUWT is the largest union representing teachers and headteachers in the UK, with over 280,000 serving teacher and school-leader members.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

—  The NASUWT notes with concern the citation by the Committee of press reports that the number of practical experiments in science lessons in schools and science field trips may be in decline.

—  The Union is aware of no credible evidence that this is in fact the case and is clear that the press reports to which the Committee appears to refer seek to advance an argument that provisions in relation to health and safety are militating against schools undertaking activities of this nature.

—  Learning outside the classroom can provide valuable educational experiences and curriculum enrichment, providing it is planned, properly resourced, linked to the curriculum and has clearly identified intended learning outcomes.

—  While the Coalition Government has confirmed that science will remain a compulsory element of the curriculum for pupils in the 5-16 age phase, its programme of reforms place current curricular entitlements to learning outside the classroom and practical activities at risk.

—  The lack of any requirement on academies and free schools to offer learning outside the classroom or practical science-related learning guaranteed in other schools currently through the provisions of the National Curriculum, could deny pupils in these schools the chance to benefit from these activities.

—  Cuts in school and local authority budgets are likely to lead to pressures on schools to limit pupils' access to learning outside the classroom or to practical activities in science, based on their relatively high cost, as well as increased financial demands being made of parents.

—  It is essential that processes and procedures put in place in respect of health and safety in schools and local authorities allow the health and safety of all those participating in or overseeing learning outside the classroom or practical activities to be managed effectively.

—  Schools should be encouraged to make use of quality assurance arrangements that support the delivery of learning outside the classroom, including providers that are pre-approved, thereby reducing costs and associated bureaucracy.

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT

1.  The NASUWT welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Science and Technology Committee inquiry into school science lessons and science field trips. The range of issues highlighted in the terms of reference of the inquiry highlight four fundamental areas of concern:

—  the extent to which the curriculum and qualifications framework promote the use of learning outside the classroom and practical learning in science;

—  the impact of the Coalition Government's drive to expand significantly the number of academies and free schools within the state-funded education system;

—  the implications of real-terms reductions in education-related expenditure; and

—  the health and safety context within which learning outside the classroom and practical activities take place.

2.  Each of these considerations is explored in more detail below. However, at the outset, the NASUWT must raise its concerns about the citation by the Committee of press reports that the number of practical experiments in science lessons in schools and science field trips may be in decline. The Union is aware of no credible evidence that this is, in fact, the case and notes with concern that the press reports to which the Committee appears to refer seek to advance an argument that provisions in relation to health and safety are militating against schools undertaking activities of this nature. The NASUWT takes the view that reports of this nature are being advanced as part of an ill-considered and unsustainable attempt to discredit the existing framework of health and safety law and regulation applicable to schools.

3.  While the NASUWT recognises fully the right of the Committee to consider issues relating to learning outside the classroom and the use of experiments in pupils' science learning experiences, the Union recommends that the Committee ensures that it takes forward its work in this area on the basis of valid and reliable evidence rather than partial reporting in some sections of the media.

The role of the curriculum, qualifications and school accountability framework

4.  The NASUWT believes that all pupils are entitled to access a broad and balanced curriculum. In particular, the curriculum should recognise different forms of learning, including academic and practical learning, and offer rich, engaging and relevant learning experiences. Not only is this a fundamental right of all children and young people, it is also critical to tackling disaffection, addressing poor pupil behaviour and ensuring that learning objectives for pupils with special educational needs or who are gifted and talented are secured effectively. The curriculum should help learners to become confident and successful and enable them to make a positive contribution to society.

5.  The NASUWT recognises that learning outside the classroom can provide valuable educational experience and curriculum enrichment, providing it is planned, properly resourced, linked to the curriculum and has clearly identified intended learning outcomes. Learning outside the classroom activities can enable pupils to be more engaged and enthusiastic learners and can provide an important means by which key learning objectives in relation to science can be secured for pupils.

6.  Equally, the provision of an effective science curriculum requires pupils to be given opportunities to engage in practical experiments and activities in order to extend and consolidate their understanding of key concepts and principles.

7.  The importance of learning outside the classroom and of practical activities in science is reflected in the provisions of the statutory programmes of study for the subject set out in the National Curriculum. This curricular framework serves as a common learning entitlement for all pupils in all schools and thereby ensures that pupils' learning in science incorporates effective use of opportunities to learn outside the classroom and to undertake practical activities to support and consolidate their learning.

8.  The Committee will therefore be concerned by proposals set out in the education White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, for future reform of the curriculum. While the White Paper confirms that science will remain a compulsory element of the curriculum for pupils in the 5-16 age phase, it intends to revise the content of the curriculum so that it is more focused on knowledge rather than skills. Developed on this basis, the entitlement to learning outside the classroom and practical activities set out in the current curriculum may be marginalised.

9.  While it is clear that in seeking the best possible learning outcomes for pupils, teachers recognise fully that learning outside the classroom and practical activities are essential elements of a rounded and engaging science experience, the potential removal of curricular entitlements in this regard could result in greater pressures being placed on teachers to focus, to a disproportionate extent, on knowledge-related areas of learning rather than the practical application of this knowledge.

10.  The implications of the school accountability regime are a critical consideration in this regard. The Coalition Government has made clear that it intends to intensify the use of performance tables and other data-related means of holding schools to account, while proposals being taken forward in relation to the reform of the school inspection regime make clear that this will rely to an even greater extent on performance data in the formation of judgements about school performance by inspectors. The potential negative consequences of perceived failure by schools in terms of their performance data and inspection outcomes will become even more pronounced as a result of the Coalition Government's proposals for school accountability as set out in the White Paper. In a context where curricular guarantees in relation to learning outside the classroom and practical experiences are diminished, restrictive teaching and learning approaches which seek merely to secure the best possible performance data outcomes are likely to be incentivised to an inappropriate extent. The Committee will therefore wish to consider in more detail the potential implications of curricular reform and the impact of the school accountability regime on the ability of schools to ensure that learning outside the classroom and practical learning in science plays an effective part in the science learning offer available in schools.

11.  The Committee is right to highlight the importance of the qualifications structure in the promotion of learning outside the classroom and the use of practical experiments in science learning. Currently, specifications for science-related GCSEs and A-levels set out clear requirements in relation to field trips and practical learning. However, it should be recognised that the inclusion of such activities in specifications is not a discretionary matter for awarding bodies but is instead a requirement for the accreditation of these qualifications by the Office of Qualifications and Examination Regulation (Ofqual).

12.  Currently, a key function of Ofqual in establishing these requirements is that they are consistent, where applicable, with the requirements of the statutory National Curriculum. Given the specific reference to learning outside the classroom and practical activities in the science National Curriculum, it is therefore appropriate that they are included within GCSE and A-level specifications. However, any removal of these requirements from the National Curriculum that may result from the reforms being taken forward by the Coalition Government could therefore leave open the possibility that they could also be removed from the accreditation requirements set out by Ofqual.

13.  In addition, the decision by the Coalition Government to allow state-funded schools to offer the International GCSE (IGCSE) as a Level 2 qualification should also be regarded by the Committee as a matter of concern given the absence of any requirement in IGCSEs for practical learning or for learning outside the classroom. The reversal of the requirement on schools to ensure that all schools offer science-related diplomas will also serve to remove an important means by which practical activities and learning outside the classroom can be promoted for many pupils given the ways in which these qualifications are designed and structured.

ACADEMIES AND FREE SCHOOLS

14.  The Committee will also be aware of the intention of the Coalition Government to expand significantly the number of academies within the state-funded education system in both the primary and secondary sectors and to promote the introduction of free schools. Notwithstanding the extent to which the revised National Curriculum will include provision for practical learning and for learning outside the classroom, it is important that the Committee notes that academies and free schools will not be under any requirement to ensure that their curricular offer is in line with the requirements of the National Curriculum.

15.  Instead, academies and free schools are subject to an ill-defined and difficult-to-enforce requirement set out in their funding agreement with the Secretary of State for Education to provide a 'broad and balanced' curriculum. Given the lack of any meaningful description of the basis upon which this curricular requirement is to be established in practice, it is therefore possible that pupils attending such schools will not be offered the range of activities in this respect that might continue to be provided for within the terms of the revised National Curriculum. Any failure in these schools in respect of provision of opportunities for learning outside the classroom or practical education in science must therefore be regarded as a direct responsibility of the Secretary of State.

16.  In relation to academies and free schools, it should also be recognised that currently under the terms of the Education Act 1996, schools are not permitted to charge for activities, including learning outside the classroom and practical activities that form part of pupils' curricular entitlements. However, if academies and free schools are able to define their own curricular offers in relatively narrow terms that exclude explicit provision for learning outside the classroom or for some science-related practical activities, it is possible to envisage circumstances where schools could claim that as these activities, where offered, are outside the core curriculum, they are liable for charging. For economically disadvantaged families, this could represent a serious barrier to access learning outside the classroom or practical science-related activities in certain schools. It also raises the prospect of increased social segregation between pupils as some would be able to access school-based activities regarded as optional extras, while others would not. The Committee will therefore want to consider seriously investigating this potential consequence of the academies and free-schools programme, and the NASUWT would welcome the opportunity to share its particular concerns in this regard with the Committee in more detail.

Reductions in public expenditure on education

17.  It should be recognised that learning outside the classroom and practical science-related learning represent relatively high-cost elements of educational provision for schools, given the resources, materials and additional expenditure that can be involved. In this context, expenditure plans set out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Coalition Government's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) risk undermining the ability of schools and local authorities to ensure that pupils' curricular entitlements in this regard can be met effectively. While the Government has asserted that during the course of the CSR period, expenditure on schools will increase in real terms, it is clear that per-pupil spending overall will decline as a result of increases in pupil numbers during the period.[73] There are also legitimate concerns about the extent to which the Government's proposals for its Pupil Premium will lead to real-terms reductions in funding for a significant number of schools.[74] These concerns are further compounded by significant reductions in local authority expenditure for which schools will face pressures to compensate through diverting their own resources to replace diminished local authority provision of key education-related services.

18.  As a result of these decisions, there is emerging evidence that schools are facing pressures to reduce learning outside the classroom opportunities or, where possible, reduce expenditure on practical learning provision as a direct consequence of increasing cost pressures and declining overall budgets. In addition, the NASUWT is aware of reports that constraints on funding are leading to increased demands for financial contributions from parents to support activities of this nature. The NASUWT is clear that the potential effect of these changes to levels of funding available to schools on learning outside the classroom and practical learning opportunities in science have not been taken into sufficient consideration by the Coalition Government in developing and implementing its policies in this area. The NASUWT therefore recommends strongly that the Committee seeks to undertake its own assessment in this regard and the NASUWT would welcome the opportunity to work with the Committee in progressing its activities in this area.

Health, safety and science education in schools

19.  It is well established that activities related to learning outside the classroom and practical activities in schools are associated with risk to the health and safety of staff and pupils. For staff, failures in relation to the health and safety of pupils and other colleagues can have significant legal consequences and place their future careers in jeopardy. In the NASUWT's view, it is therefore critical that these risks are identified, assessed and managed effectively. Approaches based on denying that such risks exist or that downplay their nature and extent are unacceptable.

20.  In its evidence to the former Children, Schools and Families House of Commons Select Committee's inquiry into learning outside the classroom undertaken in 2010, the NASUWT set out its concerns about the impact of an increasingly litigious environment on the ability of schools to organise learning outside the classroom, especially where schools believe that they may be vulnerable to compensation claims. Teachers have been vulnerable as a result of delays in the conduct of investigations where problems have arisen or where they have individually been cited in legal action that has been instigated by parents or carers. In some instances, employers have been unwilling to provide proper representation or support for teachers, further exacerbating teachers' professional and personal liability concerns. The Union's casework continues to confirm that employers will often decline to support individual teachers on grounds of perceived 'conflict of interest' between the employee and the pupil.

21.  Therefore, it is essential that processes and procedures put in place in respect of health and safety allow these issues to be addressed effectively and thereby ensure the health and safety of all those participating in such activities. The NASUWT would reject firmly any proposals to amend these arrangements in a way that would hinder their ability to ensure that all staff and pupils can benefit from effective risk management procedures. Some of the distorted and inaccurate narrative in this respect that has developed as result of the Review of health and safety undertaken by Lord Young of Graffam, Common Sense, Common Safety, can only be regarded as highly unhelpful.

22.  With regard to the contention referred to by the Committee that these arrangements deter schools from offering learning outside the classroom experiences or practical, science-related activities, the Union's experience is that such claims are entirely without validity. Work undertaken by the NASUWT to survey its members' views of causes of bureaucracy and excessive workload in schools fail to identify health and safety responsibilities related to learning outside the classroom or practical activities as significant.

23.  In addition, recent developments in these areas have worked to simplify health safety arrangements and enhance manageability at school level. For example, the Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto, taken forward by the previous administration in close collaboration with the NASUWT, led to the establishment of a Quality Badge Scheme which accredited providers as effective in the management of health and safety and benchmarked effective practice in this area. The Union is clear that the extension of this scheme has increased confidence within the school system in relation to the incorporation of learning outside the classroom experiences into school science curricular. It must therefore be regarded as a matter of serious concern that the sustainability of these schemes has been placed at serious risk by the cuts in education-related public expenditure being taken forward by the Coalition Government.

24.   The NASUWT therefore recommends that the Committee should review the positive impact of the Manifesto and the Quality Badge Scheme on practice in schools and should ensure that its work in this area takes into full account the outcomes of this review.

Ms Chris Keates
General Secretary
NASUWT

13 May 2011



73   HM Treasury (2010), Spending Review 2010, The Stationery Office, London. Back

74   Chowdry, H; Greaves, S; and Sibieta, L (2010), The Pupil Premium: assessing the options, The Institute of Fiscal Studies, London. Back


 
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Prepared 14 September 2011