Practical work and experimentation is at the heart of science. It matters to science students, their teachers and their future universities and employers. But A level students do not always have the chance to do enough of it.
Practical work counts for up to 30 per cent of the final grades and the vast majority of students get excellent marks for it, but still many enter university without good practical skills.
It is possible to do well in science A levels without doing sufficient or stretching hands-on science, and other pressures on schools can make it difficult for science teachers to carve out enough time and resource to do it if students can get good A level grades in any event. That is not right – so why is it so?
Students are assessed and marked on their performance in set tasks, but these are generally experiments that are relatively easy to administer and not particularly stretching. It has proved extremely difficult to get sufficient variety and challenge in these experiments, and so students do well even if they have not had the opportunity to do enough varied and stretching experimentation, and learn and demonstrate a variety of lab skills. What to do?
In future, science A level exams will test students' understanding of experimentation more so than now. Those who have not had the chance to design, conduct and evaluate the results from a good range of experiments will struggle to get top grades in those exams. They will also be required to carry out a minimum of twelve practical activities across the two year course - practical activities specific to their particular science, and that are particularly valued in higher education. Students will receive a separate grade for their practical skills (a pass/fail grade).
These reforms should place experimentation and practical skills at the heart of science teaching, where they should be, and students going to university to study a science are more likely to go well prepared. They will also change the game for science teachers, enabling them to teach science in a more integrated and stimulating way with more hands on science and to say with justification that without sufficient time and effort put into lab work, their students will struggle to get the grades they deserve.