Nicky Morgan calls for Ofqual U-turn on scrapping science practicals

Nicky Morgan calls for Ofqual U-turn on scrapping science practicals

Education secretary criticises move to keep lab work out of A-level and GCSE results, in first test of regulator’s independence

The education secretary has called for practical science experiments to be retained as part of GCSE and A-level exam grades in England, after publicly rebuking the exams regulator, Ofqual.

In a strongly worded speech at the Politeia thinktank in London, Nicky Morgan said that dropping practical lab work from both A-level and GCSE results would harm the next generation of scientists. She added that Ofqual should reconsider the move.

Ofqual’s decision to remove science practicals and lab work from A-level grades set off protests from the UK science community, saying potential graduates could lack basic skills. But the regulator confirmed its decision last year for A-levels and last month issued consultations taking a similar path for GCSE sciences.

Morgan’s criticism will be the first major test of Ofqual’s independence. It was set up in 2010 as a non-ministerial government department.

“While I fully understand the concerns Ofqual have in ensuring that assessment remains rigorous and resistant to gaming, I am concerned that a decision to remove practical assessment from science qualifications is in danger of holding back the next generation of scientists,” Morgan said.

“Like many in our scientific community, I fear that such a move could inadvertently downgrade the importance of these practical skills – leaving a generation of chemists, physicists and biologists who leave schools with excellent theoretical knowledge, but unable to perform key practical experiments which form the basis of a future research career.

“My hope is that Ofqual and the scientific community are able to work together to find a workable solution. One that preserves high quality assessment, but at the same time ensures that what students learn in the classroom is what universities and employers agree will give budding scientists the best preparation to succeed in the future.”

In response to Morgan’s remarks, Ofqual said: “The development of practical skills is central to science learning, rather than something just to be assessed at the end of a course. Our proposals are designed to invigorate the hands-on learning experience of students and equip them for a future in science.” The decision had been strongly criticised by the Wellcome Trust, the largest funder of UK scientific research outside of government, and senior figures in the academic and scientific community.

Morgan’s call for Ofqual to reconsider covered both A-levels and GCSEs would require a rapid rewriting of exam specifications and disruption for schools, where reformed A-levels in chemistry, biology and physics are to be taught for the first time in September.

Ofqual’s decision for A-levels meant that while students would still undertake practical work, it would no longer count towards their final grade. Instead, pupils taking science papers would be issued with a separate pass/fail grade for practical work, but it would have no effect on their final letter grade.

Currently, science practicals are assessed by teachers and account for 25% of A-level marks.

In her speech, Morgan conceded: “I’m a firm believer that, alongside ensuring the rigour of our assessments, we must never let the assessment tail wag the dog of what is taught in school.”

Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, has argued that practical work would not be ignored. But in a speech last November Stacey admitted “the most difficult decisions, the most finely balanced decisions, we have made here are in the individual sciences” over practical science skills.

The change had been welcomed by many science teachers, with some saying that practical work was stale and repetitive. But universities opposed the move, arguing that science undergraduates needed basic skills to study at a higher level.