Why it is right to remove assessed practical work from GCSE sciences

Why I applaud Ofqual for standing their ground over internal assessment of practical skills in GCSE and A-level Sciences


When Ofqual suggested in December that the new GCSE science qualifications should not contain any assessed practical work, I couldn’t believe it.  As a science teacher, this was music to my ears and it seemed too good to be true.

Against this rare appearance of optimism when considering edicts about curriculum matters, I later felt anger and confusion when both the Education Secretary and national science organisations (reported here) objected to the decision.  How could they disagree?

Having reflected, I can now see that we are coming at the decision from opposite directions.  As a teacher, to me “no assessed practical work” translates to “no internal assessment”, whereas perhaps to other stake-holders it perhaps sounds a lot like “no longer any need for any practical work in science education”.  The key difference that needs to be appreciated, however, is that internal assessment never has and never can work and it is vital that it is removed completely, once and for all…but this does not necessarily lead to practical-free science lessons.

In my experience, it is very rare for an officially-produced document to contain so much good sense, but when I read Ofqual’s consultation I agreed with nearly all aspects it, with the bottom line being, for me, that internal assessment is fundamentally incompatible with an accountability framework.  You can’t ask teachers to impartially conduct assessments with their students when it affects both their own pay progression and also the whole school’s standing in national league tables.  This is not to suggest that the majority of teachers break any rules, just that they are incentivised into devoting an unhealthy amount of time to playing the system to the maximum to give their students the very best chance.  This isn’t practical work, it is hoop-jumping.  It is further compounded by incredible systemic flaws, eg assuming equivalence between different controlled assessments; 50 raw marks being equivalent to 100UMS (ie just 10 raw marks, internally assessed, are worth half an entire GCSE grade overall); poor marking guidance allowing an inordinate amount of subjectivity; controlled assessments being common across different GCSEs (e.g. Physics and Additional Science), with the grade boundaries a compromise for both…  (All of that based on AQA’s GCSE controlled assessments, which is what I teach.)

Even pre-2006, when we assessed practical work via essays using “POAE”, it was still hoop-jumping:  you gave students tick-lists and made them keep rewriting it until they met the criteria.  Now we run intensive off-timetable days in which we knock out the assessed components, interspersed with intensive prep lessons moments before each component.  It’s nonsense how the assessment has been allowed to drive the teaching.  “Teaching”, not “Teaching and Learning”, incidentally — there is no learning associated with controlled assessments.

To non-teachers, I would emphasise one more important thing:  it is only through delivering these internal assessments, day in day out, class after class, year after year, that you can truly understand the inappropriateness of any hypothetical system of internal assessment.  It is fundamentally opposed to both the prioritising of learning and the use of the outcomes for accountability.  The situation has always been better at A-level, because cohort numbers are smaller and the range of ability is smaller and higher, but at GCSE it is unsalvageable.

So, I am very happy indeed to lose internal assessment.  The danger, of course, is that the systemic incentivisation to devote curriculum time to only that which improves grades is still there and without practical work being a benefit to grades there is the very real possibility of schools abandoning it.  This is especially true when placed alongside shrinking budgets and the expense of laboratories, equipment, consumables and technicians.  But this isn’t what Ofqual has suggested either:  there is an explicit statement that conducting practical work will give students better access to 15% of the marks on the written examinations.

This is a compromise, of course, and we are yet to see either the details (what practicals will be chosen?) or the application of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Perhaps the practicals will not be ideal?  Perhaps schools will simply demonstrate instead of allowing full-class practicals?  Perhaps exam fees will go up, squeezing budgets further.  Perhaps the exam questions will be shockingly poor (we’re certainly seen enough of that over the years).  Time will tell, but I cannot see how any future situation could possibly be as flawed as the current situation (famous last words!) and so I am very happy to try a different approach.

So I am delighted to see Ofqual standing their ground, despite so much criticism from such established bodies.  As a pracising teacher, I will ensure that practical work remains at the heart of what I do, but I and my students will no longer be shackled by such flawed assessment principles that have so negatively distorted the curriculum and the rigor of its assessment for the last 20 years.