This report says that the exam board OCR are unhappy with reforms that mean practical coursework won’t count towards A-level science grades under the new regime – they want to have more assessed experiments instead.
This is based on the principle – which would be pretty well universally agreed – that practicals are a vital part of science subjects (though I admit if you’d offered me a practical-free alternative at A-level, I’d have opted for it – I was dreadful in the lab!). Ofqual, however, are pointing out that if you assess practicals, then what happens is that teachers and pupils focus almost entirely preparing for the assessments, rather than actually doing real practicals, and so this actually makes their practical experience more narrow than if there were no assessment of it.
Ofqual are, of course, right that assessment biases the teaching – and in many places, almost the only practical kids do is for assessment or practising for it. Even our idealistic science department, who very much believe in education rather than just preparing kids for exams, find that the assessment aspect takes up a significant amount of the total practical time. OCR are living in cloud cuckoo land if they don’t realise this.
But I am afraid Ofqual haven’t really grasped the situation either. Unfortunately, there will be teachers out there who simply won’t do any significant amount of practical if it isn’t going to contribute to assessment in some way – it is more trouble than a theory lesson, expensive in terms of materials and takes time away from practising for the written papers.
So, am I arguing for a retention of the status quo? Absolutely not! As I discussed here, it is massively open to abuse, and actively penalises those who do it “properly”.
But surely it would be possible to include questions in the written exam which will be answerable by students based on a suitable broad practical experience? When I did my A-levels, they used to have questions like that in the multiple choice papers (multiple choice – that opens another can of worms, doesn’t it? May go into that another time!). That would go some way to making sure practical was part of the curriculum, at least. OK, you’d have to design the questions very carefully so that it was actually easier to do them by having the experience than by cramming for that part of the paper, but hopefully that wouldn’t be impossible.
Of course, the real problem is that not all teachers feel able (or are prepared to) deliver what is educationally valid, rather than just what is assessed. And while we have a system in which teachers are held to be more accountable for the pupils’ results than the pupils themselves, and are judged harshly if the results aren’t better than last year even if the pupils are less able and/or less motivated, what else would you realistically expect?
I am very nervous about looking back to when I was at school in the early 80s as if it were some sort of halcyon era – not least because Gove is rather keen on that period! Undoubtedly pupils were less protected from bad teaching then – there were horror stories of people being prepared for the wrong set books in English, or missing out large chunks of the syllabus in many subjects (kids didn’t have their own copy so had no idea in many cases). But the way in which we weren’t always making reference to what was on the syllabus, but had time to go off track a little, was most definitely valuable. In the hands of an excellent teacher, like my A-level chemistry teacher (stand up and take a bow, Mrs Akister!) it gave enormous freedom to really educate and inspire students without “Is this on the syllabus, Miss?” being asked every few minutes.
But I fear we cannot turn back the clock in a good way (Gove is determined we should reinstate many of the bad practices of the period, of course). So I think our examination boards need to wise up a little to the effects of assessment on the curriculum and not just think what the best teachers will do with the syllabus but consider carefully what the entirely assessment-driven crew are likely to make of it, too.