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A practical solution for GCSE science?

posted 10 Mar 2015, 03:58 by Alistair Moore   [ updated 31 Mar 2015, 02:14 ]

Let’s get one thing straight: scrapping problematic summative assessment of practical work is not the same as ‘scrapping science practicals’. As is often the case with education policy announcements, Ofqual’s proposal about the future of GCSE practical work illustrates the need to look beyond the headlines.

What Ofqual published last week was the outcome of its public consultation on the assessment of practical work in reformed science GCSEs for 2016. The consultation presented, and sought to answer, the following problem:

How can we:
  • ensure students experience a variety of practical work in their science GCSEs
  • provide manageable assessment of practical skills in large GCSE cohorts
  • resolve the conflict for teachers between assessing performance and being accountable through performance measures?
With many schools due to start teaching the new GCSEs any time from this September, a solution to the practical problem needed to be provided quickly.

Direct and indirect assessment

The original consultation document considered the difference between direct assessment and indirect assessment of practical skills and understanding. Direct assessment generates a mark based on observation of the student doing practical work (manipulating apparatus and materials, working safely, etc.). Indirect assessment is based only on written work associated with a practical activity, which could be a student’s write-up of the activity or their answers to questions based upon it.

For both forms of assessment there are questions about who should do the marking (teachers or external examiners), whether the assessment is valid and whether or not the marks should contribute to the final grade.

Ofqual’s proposal





Summative assessment
  • indirect assessment via questions in the exam papers based on practical activities, contributing at least 15% of the final grade
  • no direct assessment of practical work
  • no ‘endorsement’ or separate mark/grade for practical work on the certificate

Other requirements
  • each specification to include a list of apparatus that students should be able to use and techniques they should develop
  • each specification to include a list of 8 practical activities (16 in Combined Science) that represent the minimum students must undertake
  • each school to confirm to the exam board that their students have undertaken the required range of practical work
  • each student to keep a ‘student record’ of the practical work they’ve done, which can be requested by the exam board


This proposal suggests an arrangement in which direct assessment does not contribute to the final grade. It certainly does not amount to the scrapping of practical work in science GCSEs.

Some will argue that without direct assessment, practical work will be seen as less important and will be squeezed out of lessons. I disagree. Present and past arrangements, including coursework and controlled assessment, have not included direct assessment (relying instead on the written record produced by the student). Most science teachers want to do practical work, they just want the freedom to do it their way. Removing the need for laborious internal assessment (characteristic of coursework and controlled assessment) will, hopefully, free up time for the planning and embedding of practical work into teaching to support learning.

The proposal includes safeguards to ensure that practical work will be done. The first – the carrot – is the indirect assessment in the exam papers. Students who have had a wide range of practical experience ought to be better able to answer these questions, and thus boost their grade as a result. The challenge for the exam boards will be setting questions and mark schemes that are a valid assessment of practical understanding and that differentiate between students who have experienced relevant practical work and those who have not. Examiners will need to be trained and predictability in assessment (which could have a narrowing effect on what practical work is done) avoided.

The second safeguard – the stick – is the requirement for schools to confirm that students have completed a range of practical work, and the threat of sanctions if they haven’t. Ofqual admits that how this will be regulated is yet to be decided, but any sanctions to be applied should be sufficient to deter a school from taking this course of action whilst not penalising the students themselves.

The format of the ‘student record’ is also yet to be decided, but the regulator and the exam boards should ensure that maintaining it does not become cumbersome and a disincentive to doing practical work. It should primarily be a useful learning and revision tool for the student, and it should take whatever format is appropriate for the student and the school.

A practical solution?

Claims of ‘government ire’ stem from a letter to Ofqual from the Secretary of State for Education. In the letter, Nicky Morgan expresses her desire that the new system should be properly regulated to ensure a sufficient amount of practical work is done, and that the system is monitored over time to ensure effectiveness. Reasonable requests. In return, the DfE should ensure that schools receive sufficient funding to provide for both the practical work they want to do and the professional development they need to excel.

Given the time scale in which the proposal was drawn up, it seems to be a sensible approach to a difficult problem and should enable teachers to embed a range of practical work in GCSE science lessons. It removes the need for laborious internal assessment and the conflict for teachers between assessing performance and performance measures.

Until somebody can come up with a form of direct assessment that is manageable with large GCSE cohorts and does not limit the range of practical work that is done, leaving direct assessment out of the equation may just be the best solution.

Alistair Moore is a member of UYSEG with an interest in secondary science education and assessment. You can follow Alistair on Twitter.

Read Mary Whitehouse’s thoughts on this issue on the
Education in Chemistry blog.
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