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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 105-157)

Q105 Chair: May I welcome you, gentlemen? Thank you for coming this afternoon. It would be very helpful if you would introduce yourselves for the record.

David Knighton: I am David Knighton, one of Her Majesty's Inspectors. I have responsibility for oversight of Ofsted's subject survey programme, which includes our specialist inspection of science.

Kevin Myers: I am Kevin Myers, Deputy Chief Executive of the Health and Safety Executive, which is the primary health and safety regulator in this country. For the purposes of today, I need to declare an interest. My wife is a head teacher of a primary school.

Dennis Opposs: I am Dennis Opposs, Director of Standards at Ofqual. Ofqual is the regulator of exams, tests and qualifications in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland.

Nigel Thomas: I am Nigel Thomas, Director of Education at the Gatsby Foundation. We are a privately endowed charitable trust with an interest in science and science education.

Q106 Chair: Whether by coincidence or not, this weekend we had some interesting press exchanges with Judith Hackitt and discussions about things that happen in schools. This was the area that started our inquiry and led us to go down this route. We were hearing concerns about the way health and safety was being applied in schools. Since then, other issues have cropped up that have given us perhaps even greater concerns about science practicals. Mr Myers will be aware that I am serving on Professor Löfstedt's review of health and safety, although we have not yet got down to the detail of schools in that discussion. It would be helpful if all of you could set out your thoughts. First, is there a problem in terms of the way schools interpret the advice they are given on health and safety? Secondly, are our concerns warranted and are there broader issues we should worry about in terms of the conduct of science practicals?

David Knighton: I have to say that we have no evidence that health and safety issues are restricting the nature or quantity of practical work in schools. That is the simple answer to your question. There may be issues in individual schools, but the overall picture that we are picking up from our survey work is that this is not a significant matter in relation to practical work in schools. There may be other factors which are affecting it, but that is not a significant one.

Kevin Myers: There is a general issue in society about health and safety, which has effectively replaced mothers-in-law as something that comedians know will get a cheap laugh. Most of it is based on perception, myth, and inaccurate reporting or recording of things. There is that background in society; it is not just a "school" thing. In the context of schools in particular, from the evidence you have heard from others, as you have said, if there is an issue, health and safety is not the cause or at the top of the list, but there is definitely a perception about it being a problem. The health and safety legislation is quite straightforward and is designed to ensure that proportionate steps are taken to protect children and adults from risks to their health or safety from school activities. If we are not careful, there is a danger that it translates from that into a disproportionate approach which tries to protect schools rather than children in the first place. We need to get that balance right, and that was what a lot of the coverage over the weekend, which was entirely coincidental, was about.

Dennis Opposs: Our role is perhaps one step removed from the classrooms. We set the rules for exams, GCSEs and A-levels, and the exam boards produce their syllabuses against our regulations. We then accredit those and monitor what goes on. If there were serious concerns, we would probably have picked that up through some of our monitoring. I have to say that nothing has come through to us in recent years which would suggest there are particular concerns in that area.

Nigel Thomas: In terms of health and safety, I would firstly ask Ofsted something. They may not have picked up any evidence within the inspection of Ofsted that health and safety is preventing school science teachers undertaking practical work, but I would ask: do they ask the question? They may not. Anyone who has been involved in science education over the last 20 years has heard persistent anecdotal evidence that health and safety perceptions have an impact on the range and quality of practicals undertaken in school science lessons. You can debate whether teachers use it as an excuse or they genuinely have a misconception that something is banned or unsafe, but I think there is widespread anecdotal evidence to suggest that it has an effect.

Q107 Chair: If one were doing a risk assessment of the conduct of a particular experiment, is it not likely to be much easier to do a risk assessment ticking all the boxes if the teacher has to demonstrate something rather than the student doing it himself or herself? Is that not likely to happen, Mr Knighton?

David Knighton: All I can say is that we do not find that happening. The main purpose of practical work in terms of learning is for the young people to do it. There will be occasions when a demonstration is appropriate, but all I can do is repeat the fact that, if when our inspectors are in schools they find there is relatively little practical work going on, they will want to know why; they will talk to the teachers and to the pupils. There is no strong evidence coming through from those specialist visits by our science colleagues that health and safety issues and risk assessments are significantly constraining the practical work going on in schools.

Q108 Chair: Does everyone agree with that?

Nigel Thomas: I would widen it slightly to say that to talk about practical work as a single concept is slightly problematic in this sense. There are at least four purposes of practical work in science: enhanced understanding of scientific concepts and knowledge; enhanced understanding of process; equipping young people with laboratory and manipulative skills and use of specialised apparatus; and the engagement and motivational aspects. If you are talking about a teacher demo, it is quite clear that a well-constructed teacher demonstration with awe and wonder can easily play to that engagement and motivational aspect, but, arguably, it is unlikely to be the best approach if you are trying to equip a young person with specific laboratory skills. A good teacher knows the various purposes of laboratory work and will adopt different approaches, whether it be demo or hands-on group work, accordingly.

Q109 Chair: Do you see anything in the emerging education policy that ought to give us confidence that, in those issues where there is a grey area, it is moving in the right direction? Mr Knighton, are you comfortable that science practicals are getting better?

David Knighton: There is certainly some evidence coming through that there are improvements.

Q110 Chair: What are they?

David Knighton: In terms of the amount of practical work, for example, key stage 2 and key stage 3 tests disappeared a couple of years ago. We are starting to see some impact in schools in terms of more practical work and a greater investigative approach, because teachers see their programmes being freed up by the absence of those tests. That would probably be the most significant factor on which we would home in.

Q111 Chair: That is about volume. Is there anything about absolute quality?

David Knighton: It is not necessarily just about volume; it is about an approach and also about quality. It means there is more investigative, practical work going on in some schools, not all, as a consequence of that policy.

Q112 Stephen McPartland: One of the messages running throughout the inquiry has been that having the right teachers in the right place is key. Mr Knighton, when newly qualified science teachers are appointed to a new school what type of induction do you think they should undertake?

David Knighton: It was not a question I was expecting in terms of practical science. I would have thought it is the same kind of induction as for any other teacher. If we are talking about scientists, they will have done a science degree and some initial training, which will have introduced them to practical work, as well as other approaches to teaching and learning. I would have thought their induction as for any other subject would be a fairly structured programme where they would be mentored by an experienced member of staff.

Q113 Stephen McPartland: What if they were not scientists but had a degree in a different subject?

David Knighton: But they were teaching science.

Stephen McPartland: Yes.

David Knighton: I would have thought it meant, therefore, that the amount of supervision they required in terms of science would be greater. They would probably be introduced to teaching in a more gradual way, but it would be exactly the same kinds of principles as would apply to a non-specialist in any subject. Clearly, you would need to monitor the practical side of it fairly carefully if the teacher came from a background that did not involve previous practical work.

Q114 Stephen McPartland: Whose job do you think it should be to identify whether or not teachers are updating their skills?

David Knighton: Initially, I would expect it to be a matter for the head of department, but the senior management would need to support that as well. The issue of specialist professional development is one that we raise regularly in all of our subject reports. Almost invariably, that is an area that we think needs to be improved with greater focus on the subject-specific professional development of teachers.

Q115 Stephen McPartland: How does Ofsted facilitate and identify the quality of continuous professional development of science teachers in particular?

David Knighton: It is not our job to facilitate it. We report on what actually happens. For example, when we carry out a specialist science visit to a school, at the end of it we make judgments which go into the formal letter that is sent to the school and is then published on our website. In quite a large proportion of those there could well be an area for improvement which relates to professional development for the staff in the school. That is quite a common area which we identify.

Q116 Stephen McPartland: Do you think science teachers need something more than other teachers because of the practical applications?

David Knighton: I suspect that our science colleagues might say that, but our maths colleagues would say the same about mathematics and historians about history.

Q117 Stephen McPartland: Do you believe that an accredited course for science practicals would help?

David Knighton: I do not think I am in a position to be able to answer that.

Q118 Stephen McPartland: Would any of the other witnesses like to answer that?

Nigel Thomas: I think that, if you are looking at initial teacher training, including the NQT year, there would be real value in having additional access to practical work. If you talk to trainee teachers, what they will tell you about practicals is that they just need more time to practise them in a safe environment. The trouble is that with science, particularly the PGCE route, which is still the biggest one, it is just 36 weeks. There are lots of things that should be in a PGCE that are not, including some subject knowledge, so that if you have biologists who are going to teach physics it would be helpful for them to learn some physics during their training. But you cannot keep loading in more and more content; you would need to look maybe at a summer school idea either before the PGCE or immediately after it. To have that kind of lab summer school would be a great idea.

Q119 Chair: If Mr Myers is right, a bit of myth-busting about health and safety and practical understanding of how to do a proper risk assessment would not be a bad idea.

Nigel Thomas: Absolutely. You could even imagine it being a residential course at the National Science Learning Centre, for example, where you can explore all these kinds of things.

Kevin Myers: I cannot answer your final question, nor am I competent to talk about quality of teacher learning. In terms of health and safety, if you are talking about carrying out experiments that have intrinsic hazards associated with them, which can be properly and safely managed, we would expect people to be competent to do that. To do that requires them to be trained to do that specifically.

Q120 Chair: Have the Health and Safety Executive ever discussed that with the Department for Education and suggested that teacher training level might be a good place to do it?

Kevin Myers: We have had lots of discussions over time from nursery all the way up about the opportunities to imbue a positive health and safety culture. I am not sighted on the detail of that, but I could send you a note if there is something.

Q121 Pamela Nash: In recent weeks from a variety of witnesses in this inquiry we have heard much about the qualities of science technicians in schools. There has been lots of praise of them but also continuing concern about the pay and conditions under which they work. I want to ask each of you whether you feel more emphasis should be placed on the role of the skilled technician. Conversely, should teachers have greater practical expertise?

Nigel Thomas: Yes. Undoubtedly, technicians are vital in school science.
They continue to be under threat. There is some early evidence to suggest that, as budgets begin to get squeezed, technician numbers get cut before teachers, as you might expect. You still see a large number of technicians on term time only contracts. They are poorly paid and do not have a very clear career structure. Eight or nine years ago there was a study by the Royal Society that suggested we might be 4,000 technicians short. I cannot see any reason why that number has reduced since then.

Dennis Opposs: For us, I think the key thing in terms of these skills is that teachers are able to carry out accurate assessments of their pupils' practical experimental work, but technicians are probably one step further removed from that. I am not sure there is much I can add about technicians.

Kevin Myers: I do not think I have anything to add about the particular question you ask there, I am afraid.

David Knighton: The roles of technicians are absolutely key in science as they are in technology and other areas in schools. Essentially, what they do is free up teachers to do the teaching, so they are using their expertise in the most effective and efficient way. In those terms, therefore, the role of the technician is really important. They are doing what they are good at and it enables the teachers to do what they are good at.

Q122 Pamela Nash: Mr Knighton, does Ofsted currently assess how closely technicians are working with science teachers in schools?

David Knighton: We do not do that formally. The only occasions when we might pick that up are if we feel that the practical work was not being done particularly efficiently in a school. We might follow that up and look at the particular circumstances. It would tend to arise if there was an issue about technician support. We would not normally monitor it unless there was a reason to do so.

Q123 Stephen Metcalfe: Much of the evidence we have heard, or certainly the e-consultation we have conducted, has said that the practical teaching of science is not fundamental to the teaching of science in our schools and that the course is taught very much to pass the exam rather than to create, or perhaps as well as to create, a thirst for science. We have some evidence that the practicals are done because the course requires it, and if the results do not match what the textbook says you throw away your notes and write down what the textbook says the results should have been. Does Ofqual consider that the current science courses incentivise teachers to carry out really good quality practical science in classes, or is there no value in this?

Dennis Opposs: The control we have on this is in the criteria set. For example, in the A-level science subject criteria and in the content there is a requirement that says, "Carry out experimental and investigative activities, including appropriate risk management, in a range of contexts", and there is further detail beyond that. There is an objective in all the A­level specifications. That means students will have to carry out practical work. They will be assessed on their skills in that; it has a particular weighting. There is something similar in the GCSEs, so it is an essential part of all the courses and forms part of the assessment weighting.

Q124 Stephen Metcalfe: But you are not dictating to schools or the courses what should be taught. Is that because you do not think they will have similar set-ups and equipment and are just allowing them to make their own decisions on that?

Dennis Opposs: There is a step between what our criteria say and what goes on in schools, which is that each of the exam boards produces its syllabus to match these. They may vary in the specificity with which they say you ought to do this or that experiment. Sometimes they can be quite prescriptive; others may not be. Schools then have a choice as to which of those syllabuses they teach.

Q125 Stephen Metcalfe: Do you think that such a wide range of courses is a good thing? We would often say that choice is good, but does that mean there is quite a discrepancy in the way science practicals are handled and taught?

Dennis Opposs: The system in this country is that we have different exam boards offering the same titles but with their own particular syllabuses. There is a requirement that we have some kind of comparability of standards across those, but it does provide some variety so different schools in different contexts can make a choice of what best suits them.

Q126 Stephen Metcalfe: How do you check that the quality of those courses is equal so that, whichever board you have done, you have the same level of skills?

Dennis Opposs: Before the syllabuses go to schools they will have to be accredited by us, so we have to check that they match our criteria. That is our opportunity to make sure they are all of equivalent standard. We will then have, to a small extent, a monitoring programme that follows up some of these afterwards, so we will get some evidence. But I have to say that the kind of monitoring we do would not include going into classrooms and watching students carry out their work; it would be one step removed from that.

Q127 Stephen Metcalfe: Just for clarity, how do you monitor it?

Dennis Opposs: How do we monitor the practical experimental side?

Stephen Metcalfe: No, just generally. How do you monitor that the courses being taught are of equal quality?

Dennis Opposs: The way we check they are of equal quality is that from time to time we will choose a subject and look across the different syllabuses that the exam boards offer. We will check again what the requirements are in the syllabuses and collect examples of the candidates' work. We will get experts to look at that and make some comparisons. It will be one step removed. We will base it on the evidence of what the candidates have produced; we will not be seeing what they are doing in the classroom.

Q128 Stephen Metcalfe: That is my point. They could or could not have done a practical and written down the results from the textbook to say they have done it. Do you think that the practical teaching of science is valuable? Does it add to the overall experience? What should be the purpose of those practical experiments? I put that question to all of you.

Dennis Opposs: To come back to your first point, the idea that students would not be carrying out these practicals and the teachers would just be getting them to copy it from textbooks would be a serious malpractice. The requirement is that they carry out these practicals, and what is assessed is the students carrying out their practicals. I am not certain of the details, but there may be points where, if you are being assessed on planning and it is completely inappropriate for what you are doing, you might be provided with something that would be taken into account during the assessment. In terms of your main question, as I have said, all our criteria insist that practical work is taking place, so from that point of view we are saying that yes, it is an important and essential part of all these courses.

Q129 Stephen Metcalfe: But what should the purpose of it be?
What are the students trying to gain from it?

Dennis Opposs: There is a mixture of things. There will be the particular skills that you gain from manipulating equipment; there will be something about the kinds of analysis in intellectual terms that you have to go through to make some sense of your data; and I guess there is also something in there about it being a way of teaching science. That will not be very explicit in our criteria but I would have thought that would be part of the expectation.

Kevin Myers: I would approach it from the other end of the telescope. In terms of UK plc, when we regulate industry we emphasise the importance of competence. There is a dearth of competent scientists and engineers coming through the system. I do not know the cause of that, but all I would say is that one of the purposes at that level should be to stimulate and encourage people to be engaged and want to follow that profession for their own career development and the good of our society.

Q130 Stephen Metcalfe: Does anyone want to add to that?

Nigel Thomas: I go back to what I said at the beginning. There are several purposes besides embedding knowledge, one of which is laboratory skills. Our assessment is that laboratory skills are not assessed within the current system. If a young person conducts a controlled assessment within a practical lab and breaks all the test tubes, as long as he or she knows what should have happened and writes down, "I conducted the experiment like this. I did my research and planned it, and this is how I undertook it", that individual can get maximum marks. The actual carrying out of the experiment is not assessed but the process they go through is.

David Knighton: Going back to your basic question as to why practical work is important, the simple answer is that it is in the nature of science. To be a scientist you do practical work. Scientific learning is about experimentation. You cannot, therefore, learn science without actually doing it. There may be some occasions when practical work is in the form of a demonstration. It all depends on what the learning objectives are, but the actual process of doing the science is key to the subject.

Q131 Stephen Metcalfe: We call them experiments because occasionally they do not come out the way you think they will, and a lot of learning comes out of that.

David Knighton: That is absolutely right.

Q132 Stephen Metcalfe: But it seems to me there is absolutely no recognition in any part of the assessment that getting the wrong result from an experiment can be equally as interesting and important as getting the right result, because then you can explore why it came out differently from the way it said it would in the textbook.

David Knighton: Absolutely. In the schools where good science is taught, that happens. It is built into the national curriculum, because if you look at the skills of inquiry the evaluation at the end of it is a key part of it. What we tend to find is that the first stage of scientific practical work, which is the planning, and the evaluation at the end of it, where you look at what you have learnt from it, tend to be the weaker elements, relatively, whereas the actual implementation and recording of results tend to be stronger; but in the best schools all of those elements are there very strongly.

Q133 Roger Williams: Mr Knighton, in your inspection framework there is practical science as a discrete element. When an inspector is planning an inspection of a school, will that school be required to demonstrate some practical activity, or will it be a chance thing and there may be some practical activity going on when the inspector is there?

David Knighton: What we would want to see is what normally goes on, so we would not specify that we want to see practical work. However, we have now published our descriptors for various grades that we give. It is quite clear in those that, if we are seeing outstanding science, we will expect to see practical work. It may not be occurring in a particular lesson, but the inspector will be talking to the students, looking at their notebooks and finding out whether they have done science in the past and it is an integral part of their programme, rather than just an add-on where perhaps you have just one practical lesson a week and it does not necessarily connect to the rest of the learning. The practical work and investigative approach is the key to outstanding and good teaching and learning in science.

Q134 Roger Williams: I think you published an assessment of science teaching recently.

David Knighton: Our science report was published in January.

Q135 Roger Williams: What did you say about practical subjects?

David Knighton: Our first key finding was about practical investigative science, and that finding was that that was the key to good learning. The highest standards are in schools where the most effective practical work takes place. We are saying that the schools that have made the most progress in developing the quality of their science are the ones where the amount of practical work has increased. We are quite unequivocal about the relationship between practical investigative science and standards and progress in the subject.

Q136 Chair: Mr Opposs, following on the answer by Mr Knighton, if you were designing a new syllabus for an exam board that I am putting you in charge of now, what proportion of science would be conducted as a practical in the laboratory?

Dennis Opposs: What proportion of the teaching?

Chair: Yes.

Dennis Opposs: I am not sure I can fully answer that. The kind of weighting for the assessment in the syllabuses tends to be typically about 20%. I guess there ought to be some link between that proportion and how much teaching time is spent on it, although that might well be an underestimate because you might be doing other practical work which certainly does not relate to the assessment.

Chair: The logic of Mr Knighton's answer is that that should be nudged upwards.

Q137 Stephen Metcalfe: What do you believe are the main barriers to getting better practical science taught in schools?

Nigel Thomas: If you have to go for one thing, it has to be assessment. I am sure you have heard this from many of the witnesses. High-stakes assessment prohibits a range of innovative practical work. You end up going down to the lowest common denominator where all children do the same set experiments that they have been drilled on for many weeks. They know what is going to happen; it is not inspiring and surprising, and it is not science.

Q138 Stephen Metcalfe: Does anyone else want to come in?

Kevin Myers: If there is a myth that health and safety is getting in the way of it, we should do all that we can to deconstruct and break down that myth and talk to people about the reality.

David Knighton: My answer would be different for primary and secondary. I think that in primary schools the barrier is probably the confidence and expertise of teachers. That is perfectly understandable.

Q139 Stephen Metcalfe: If that is the case, how do we get more pure science teachers perhaps to think of primary school as a destination for them?

David Knighton: I am not sure I can answer that. We will always be in a position where probably a fairly small minority of primary teachers are trained scientists. I think that is inevitable however we go about encouraging more to come in. The key to this is developing the teachers we have and making sure there is sufficient high-quality professional development. There are some really good initiatives out there, and it is a matter of encouraging schools to get their staff into them. Possibly in the last few years, particularly in primary and to a lesser extent in secondary, the emphasis in teachers' professional development has been on generic issues: assessment for learning and also, understandably, literacy and numeracy. I think we need to be encouraging a greater involvement in subject-specific, science-specific, professional development. That is on the primary side.

In secondary, it is a matter of perceptions about the time you have available and preparing people for examinations. That is not an issue in the majority of secondary schools. We are finding good quality science teaching and learning in secondary and primary schools, for that matter. In the majority of schools it is not an issue, but there is a minority, probably about 30%, where it is no better than satisfactory. In that case there is a narrow view of science and the perception that you have a limited amount of time, and possibly the practical work is an extra which you might be able to do away with. The most effective science occurs where you have practical science underpinning the knowledge and understanding.

Q140 Gavin Barwell: I apologise for my voice; I am not at my best today. I want to ask a more wide-ranging question. You touched on the lack of people coming forward with competency in science, technology and engineering-related issues. If we want more people studying those subjects at undergraduate level, clearly we need more people to study them at school as well. What would you change to attract more pupils to study science at school, especially at A-level or an equivalent stage in the curriculum?

David Knighton: One of the clear messages coming through from sixth-formers in schools is that the reason they chose to do AS and A-level science is that they found it interesting and enjoyed it. The most important features were the practical investigative aspects of science. That is the simple answer. You get the practical work embedded in the science in key stage 4 and that encourages people to do it post-16. There have been a number of other factors as well. Certainly, some evidence is starting to emerge that the growing number of students doing triple science in key stage 4 is increasing the numbers who are opting to go on to do science post-16 as well.

Dennis Opposs: Clearly, there are a lot of factors. Just focusing on my side of things, so to speak, it seems to me critical that, when we are producing particularly the GCSE syllabuses, they are as interesting, motivating and as good as they can be, and in particular perhaps offer the right kind of challenge to those who might want to go on and take it at A-level. It is the quality of syllabuses apart from anything else.

Nigel Thomas: Clearly, there is a wide range of things that could help with the pipeline of STEM into the economy. Careers advice comes up very frequently. Labour market information is very poorly communicated to young people and their parents. Experience of meeting scientists and engineers in the real world is clearly motivational, hence STEM clubs and ambassadors. In the context of this inquiry and practical science, if you talk to scientists, you are often struck by the fact they say they can go back in their memory to a time at school when they had a really engaging and inspiring demonstration by a teacher or they were doing something surprising within practical science. I do not think I have ever heard a scientist say, "I got into science because of osmosis in a potato experiment I did five weeks running just so that I could pass the exam." It comes back to assessment.

Q141 Gavin Barwell: In 2006 the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee concluded that there was a perception among students that science was hard. We picked that up a little ourselves when we visited a school. It was clear that triple science was an option only for the brightest pupils. Do you think practical science can have a role in encouraging less able children to take on science qualifications and, potentially, go into a STEM-related career?

David Knighton: Yes. It applies equally well to all students. Whatever your ability and aptitude in science, the more engaging the course the more likely you are to follow it through. I mentioned triple science, but the fact that we now have quite a wide range of courses, which are suited to a range of different abilities in key stage 4, seems to be a positive way forward and is meeting the needs of a greater range of young people. There are a number of vocational courses now operating as well. We have raised one or two issues about some of those, but for some young people that is the most effective form of learning in key stage 4. I think the range of provision is an important factor in encouraging more people to do more science for longer.

Q142 Gavin Barwell: What has led to that range of provision? What has happened in the last few years? You said there was a broader diversity of courses at key stage 4 now and that has led to more people taking triple science.

David Knighton: I think it has been a gradual process and a realisation that we want more young people to do science, and therefore we need to meet their particular needs.

Q143 Gavin Barwell: When Ofsted is inspecting schools, is one of the things you look at whether they are offering access to a full range of science qualifications? Is the range of qualifications that they offer something that you consider?

David Knighton: Are we talking here about our school inspections which tend to be fairly general ones, as opposed to our specialist science visits?

Gavin Barwell: By all means comments on both.

David Knighton: Certainly, on the science visits we would do that. You may be aware that under the proposed Ofsted framework that is going through at the present there is less emphasis on formally looking at curriculum provision. So, with a limited amount of time, it would not necessarily be the case that the inspectors would be able to look in detail at the total curriculum provision in all the subjects. I do not think I am able to speak about our general section 5 inspections, as they are referred to now. Certainly, on our subject-specific science visits, the inspectors will be looking at the range of provision and matching it to the young people in the school. In different schools the range of provision might be different because it matches a different group of young people. We certainly would not go with a particular template where we looked for a certain range and variety of courses in every school. It depends on the particular circumstances and the young people there.

Q144 Gavin Barwell: Looking at the section 5 inspections for a second and making sure I have understood correctly what you have just said, the Government are changing that at the moment.

David Knighton: Yes.

Q145 Gavin Barwell: You are saying that under the new regime the focus is very much, as I understand it, on teaching alone.

David Knighton: That is right.

Q146 Gavin Barwell: There would not necessarily be the time to look at that issue, but did that happen under the old section 5 inspections?

David Knighton: Under the current section 5 we talk about the curriculum. We will not be focusing on that in the same way, but even under the current arrangements you cannot guarantee that there will be a scientist on the team. The approach is a general one. You are looking at the general feature of the school, and you would not necessarily have the time or capacity to be able to pick up on very specific issues relating to science or any other subject, for that matter.

Q147 Gavin Barwell: On the science-specific ones where you would look at the curriculum offer, you said you would not go in with a template in mind; you would tailor it to a degree to the particular students for whom that school was catering. I know that one of the things Government Ministers flag up is the number of schools in this country where, essentially, nobody is taking a triple science option. You would not look at whether students who wished to do so had the opportunity to study triple science.

David Knighton: We would certainly look at that. If it was felt that that was an important gap in their provision, we would report on that.

Q148 Stephen Metcalfe: I would like to examine the health and safety issue a bit more, if I may. We started this inquiry because we believed there had been a decline in the way practical science was taught in schools over the last 25 to 30 years or so. There is no doubt that in that period of time the prominence of health and safety has risen a great deal. Is it possible that health and safety has become so ingrained in our culture that we do not recognise that that is the cause of some of the decline in the teaching of practical science, and the way it is taught has managed to take some of the excitement out of it because of the assessments that have taken place? If that is not the case, how do we redress the balance so that people can see that a reasonable amount of risk assessment can take place and then we can just carry on with doing some exciting practical work in classrooms?

Kevin Myers: The evidence suggests that the problem is not health and safety, but, as I said, there is a perception that this is a problem. Perceptions are sometimes more difficult to challenge than the reality. We have been trying for a number of years to debunk some of these health and safety myths. We used to produce cartoons to try to shoot them down but they persist. That is why we are trying to up the game in terms of being clearer about what is and what is not required under health and safety law, trying to work with colleagues about what is a sensible and proportionate approach to risk assessment, and trying to work with other organisations, like some of those from which you have heard evidence, that can de-mystify science experiments and give people a method statement. Instead of every science teacher in the country doing his or her own individual risk assessment, if CLEAPSS or SSREC in Scotland can do it for you, that will help take it forward. We need to keep emphasising that it is about a sensible and proportionate approach.

Q149 Stephen Metcalfe: Are you working with all these organisations to make this happen?

Kevin Myers: Yes, we are.

Q150 Stephen Metcalfe: How long has that piece of work been going on?

Kevin Myers: It has been going on for ages. We first worked with CLEAPSS when the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 was introduced.

Q151 Stephen Metcalfe: Do you accept that it has been a long process?

Kevin Myers: It has been a long process, but we did not reach the tipping point and get all of these problems in 1974. It first became prevalent about 10 years ago. We will work with anybody to try to debunk these things and give people sensible assistance in developing it. We think it is best if that is developed from within the education sector by the people who actually know what they are doing rather than us suddenly seeking to become experts on education. We prefer to work with the bodies themselves because then there is more likelihood of them buying into it.

Q152 Stephen Metcalfe: So those discussions are ongoing.

Kevin Myers: Yes.

Q153 Stephen Metcalfe: What will be the next development from which we will see some practical outcome?

Kevin Myers: We published some stuff over the weekend about schools trips and outdoor learning activities. The Department for Education also revised some of its guidance. Clearly, we need to take stock to see whether that is having any impact. Obviously, we will be interested in any recommendations that might flow from your study. As the Chairman said, there are other studies going on about whether there are any legislative issues at the heart of this, although the legislation that applies to schools is relatively narrow and clear.

Q154 Stephen Metcalfe: Once you had made your announcements over the weekend, straight away some of the organisations representing the teachers came out and said they were concerned about this. That is why I get the sense that it has almost become ingrained in people to think about health and safety as a barrier to doing these things. It is a question of how we break that down. Perhaps you yourselves need to take a more active role in doing that if, as a culture, we have become so risk-averse that we are worried about doing things. Because we hear the health and safety excuse all the time, perhaps you need to take a more active role in that. I am pleased to hear that you are starting to do that, but I think it needs to be more.

Kevin Myers: We are not starting to do it; we have been doing it over a period of time. We will continue to do more of it. Frankly, I would like us to spend more of our time talking to people who are managing significant risks that are killing and maiming people. Senior management spend more time responding to spurious and inaccurate articles in the press, frankly, than ideally we would like. Our chairman, Judith Hackitt, visited the Institution of Chemical Engineers. She can be seen on YouTube setting fire to herself, which is probably above and beyond the call of duty, to demonstrate impactful science and how, if you properly manage the risks, you can achieve awe and wonder without harming people.

Chair: You will be pleased to know that for the launch of the International Year of Chemistry we conducted similar experiments in the House of Commons and we did not burn down the building.

Q155 Gavin Barwell: I have a general question on which to end, which follows your point about health and safety not being the main barrier. The evidence we have had from teachers and others has shown very clearly that time is the number one barrier to doing more practical work in the classroom. What bureaucracy do you think could be cut out to provide teachers with time to do more practical work in the classroom?

Kevin Myers: From my perspective, any paperwork that is generated to cover people's backs rather than proportionately address health and safety risks in a simple and straightforward way is wasting everybody's time.

David Knighton: What you are talking about is a perception among a large number of teachers, not the majority. The majority manage to teach effective, high-quality practical science without considering time to be an issue. It is a matter of providing the support for teachers and sharing good practice so they can see that when they get down to it time is not necessarily going to be such a problem.

Q156 Gavin Barwell: When we visited a particular school, a number of the science teachers we spoke to referred to changes in the curriculum. They felt it was not that the curriculum did not value practical work but that the volume of material covered by it crowded out the opportunity for practical work. Are there specific areas in the curriculum that could be slimmed down?

Dennis Opposs: I would say only that a review of the national curriculum is going on at the moment and science is one of the subjects in the front line. I guess that is the place where it will be addressed.

Q157 Gavin Barwell: Do you wish to venture an opinion on the subject?

Dennis Opposs: I am sorry; no.

Chair: Gentlemen, thank you very much. It is five o'clock. The Minister is sitting behind you filling in the tick box to check up on you. Thank you very much for your attendance this afternoon.




 
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