Memorandum submitted by the '59 Club
The '59 Club is made of the Heads of Science
in 26 independent schools in the UK.
This group of schools annually submits over
5,000 entries for GCSE examinations in Biology, Chemistry and
Physics and over 2,000 entries at A level in these three subjects.
We wish to express our joint concern over some aspects of the
present structure for the assessment of practical skills in examinations.
Our main concern is with Sc1 in the GCSE examination
but some of the points made here are also applicable to practical
assessment at AS and A2 level.
We agree that practical work and scientific
enquiry is an important part of any science education and needs
to be assessed. We also appreciate that if assessment did not
take place some schools may do very little experimental work at
However, the present system has become a mind-numbing
and disheartening bureaucratic exercise whose principal aim is
to ensure that pupils have jumped through the correct hoops to
gain as many marks as possible. Practical work should be an enriching
experience but instead has become a dismal slog which compromises
the integrity of both teachers and pupils.
This Sc1 assessment process has a negative attitude
on pupils' attitude to science as it is excessively repetitive,
often trivial and they do not learn anything of real value from
the process. The closed nature of the investigations causes any
aspect of creativity to be severely restricted, so imagination
and enthusiasm are being stifled. Teachers are tempted to say,
"You can't use that approach because it won't qualify for
the top level of marks". Assessment is seen by pupils as
a game where getting the right answer is the only goal.
Sc1 investigations give the wrong impression
about science in the real world where team-work, or at least discussions
with others, is an important part of the discovery process. We
prevent any kind of co-operation and require candidates to say
that "this is all my own work." We understand that the
I.B. scheme of Group 4 practical assessment which involves open-ended,
co-operative working seems to be effective.
In spite of the teachers' best efforts to ensure
that pupils are marked purely on their own work, plagiarism is
rife, the use of the internet is making this worse.
The final profile of marks fails to discriminate
between the good and mediocre practical workers. We are really
testing the teachers rather than the pupils. Marks reflect how
well the pupils have been coached to clear the requisite hurdles.
This goal is often seen to be so vital that practice investigations
and mock praticals are carried out as part of the training. The
excitement of laboratory work disappears in these circumstances.
Thus the outcome is not commensurate with the
time and effort required, both in administrative paperwork and
in the number of laboratory lessons used to ensure that targets
are achieved. This loss of practical sessions limits the amount
of genuinely stimulating experimental work that can be done.
Many of us feel that pupils' practical experience
in the sciences and their experimental skills in general are now
poorer than they were 10 years ago.
Assessment should not necessarily be based entirely
Only those practical skills (O and E) which
cannot be tested on paper should be subjected to a system of internal
assessment. This may amount to only 10 per cent of the final mark.
The skills P and A can be assessed in the written examination,
the old Nuffield Biology paper 1A and the data analysis questions
from Nuffield A level Biology would be a suitable model to consider.
Teachers need to be freed of many constraints
so that they can be more flexible in their approach to assessment.
One of us has suggested an even more drastic
change in which the assessment of practical work in schools is
not marked on a percentage basis. Instead teachers would simply
be required to certify that an investigation had been carried
out with a suitable level of competence. Pupils would practice
and develop skills for however long was necessary until they had
reached a required level. An external moderator would check the
validity of the assessment. Such an investigation need not necessarily
reach a conclusion and so would provide scope for creativity,
ingenuity, inventiveness, challenge, satisfaction and enjoyment.
It is this sort of positive experience which will encourage the
pupil to consider sciences for A level or a career.