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

Written evidence submitted by Ofsted (Sch Sci 44)

I am pleased to forward a short written submission from colleagues at Ofsted in response to the call for evidence and questions issued as part of the above inquiry.

I also enclose[78] a copy of our recent survey report on science education in England from 2007 to 2010, which was published at the start of this year. This report, Successful science, is one of Ofsted's triennial surveys on the national curriculum subjects.

Paul Harrison
Parliamentary Affairs Manager

27 May 2011

Ofsted response to the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee's call for evidence on practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips

Ofsted's most recent evidence on science education is summarised in the report Successful science: an evaluation of science education in England 2007-10, published in January 2011.

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

The importance of practical work is summarised in the first key finding of the Successful science report:

In the schools which showed clear improvement in science subjects, key factors in promoting students' engagement, learning and progress were more practical science lessons and the development of the skills of scientific enquiry.

This importance is emphasised in the report's recommendations that:

Primary schools should ensure that pupils are engaged in scientific enquiry, including practical work, and are developing enquiry skills.


Secondary schools (and colleges) should ensure that they use practical work and scientific enquiry as the key stimulus to develop scientific knowledge, understanding and skills.

However, practical work needs to be well planned, with clear learning objectives if students are to benefit from it. In paragraphs 20-22 of the report, Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMI) analyse what makes effective practical work. In the schools visited where students' progress in science was no more than satisfactory, the opportunities for them to design and carry out experiments were limited; too much of the practical work was prescriptive, with students merely following instructions. In the schools where the highest standards were observed, students were involved in planning and carrying out regular science investigations, so that they understood the processes involved.

Two contrasting examples of practical work in science are provided in paragraph 35 of the report. The first illustrates how simply exposing students to practical work does not, in itself, promote learning. The second illustrates some of the best practice observed, where the teacher had very effectively prepared students to generate their own questions, form hypotheses and plan and carry out their own practical work. This example also demonstrates how ICT can be used to enhance the analysis of data generated by experimental work.

One section of the Successful science report focuses specifically on features of outstanding teaching and learning, and the case studies in paragraphs 93 and 95 deal particularly with practical, experimental work. Another section of the report indicates how satisfactory lessons can be improved, to make them good; case studies relating specifically to practical work are provided in paragraphs 101, 103, 104, 105 and 107.

Many schools organise one-day science-related trips to science exploratories, museums and zoos etc. However, few organise field trips that might involve exploration of the natural environment; school grounds tend to be used for this area of learning. Few schools organise science-related field trips that involve overnight stays.

Inspectors report that enrichment and extra-curricular activities generally had a positive impact on primary pupils' attitudes to science (paragraph 49). The range of extra-curricular activities seen in secondary schools was broader than that in primary schools, but activities did not usually engage large numbers of students (paragraph 56).

2.  Are practical experiments in science lessons and science field trips in decline?

There is no evidence from inspectors' visits to schools that there is a decline in practical work carried out in science lessons. In referring to the key issues from the previous triennial science report (published in 2008), the Successful science report comments that scientific enquiry continues to be at the heart of the most successful science education. It also notes that practical work has had a high profile in the last few years, and that its importance has been widely recognised.

Ofsted has no evidence to indicate that there has been a decline in science field trips.

3.  What part do health and safety concerns play in preventing pupils from performing practical experiments in science lessons and going on field trips?

The evidence from specialist science visits is that schools give good consideration to health and safety issues. Guidance for schools generally places sensible restrictions on what they can and cannot do in science.

There may be individual schools where health and safety considerations have affected practical science work and field trips. However, there is no evidence from the visits to schools carried out by HMI that this is a widespread or serious problem.

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

This question could be interpreted in a number of ways. In paragraph 20 of the Successful science report, inspectors note that schools in which practical work was too prescriptive were often influenced too much by the specific ways in which practical work and scientific enquiry skills were assessed for GCSE and, as a result, were less concerned with providing opportunities for wider-ranging investigations.


27 May 2011

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Prepared 14 September 2011