The Gatsby Good Practical Science Report

We’ve discussed the Good Science report several times at various committee meetings of the ASE. If you haven’t heard of it you must have been living in a remote cave or out of the country! A copy was sent to every school (I received one as the DHT) but quite often these haven’t been passed on. If you haven’t seen a copy before then you can download the report, summary and appendices from the Gatsby website. It is worth a read.

The authors of the report looked at practical science across the world and set out ten benchmarks for schools to use when planning how to do practical school. A school that achieves all ten should be delivering a world-class science education.

The reasons for doing practical science are

  • Scientific enquiry
  • Improve understanding through practising experience
  • Teach specialist practical skills
  • Motivate and engage
  • Develop higher level skills like teamwork & communication

The ten benchmarks for good practical science are:

  1. Planned practical science
  2. Purposeful practical science
  3. Expert teachers
  4. Frequent and varied practical science
  5. Laboratory facilities and equipment
  6. Technical support
  7. Real experiments, virtual enhancements
  8. Investigative projects
  9. A balanced approach to risk
  10. Assessment fit for purpose

I was fortunate to be able to attend an excellent CPD seminar this week organised by the RSC, Nottingham EIB and the Gatsby Foundation. The event was structured to help participants benchmark practical science provision in their own schools and start to develop an improvement plan.

The scene was set by Professor Sir John Holman who was one of the authors of the report.

We learned during the keynote that teachers around the world value practical work in science. They told the report

  • Teachers don’t interpret the purposes of practical science in exactly the same way as official documents.
  • Practical work creates a shared experience – or a level playing field (regardless of science capital)
  • Practical work is good for learning languages, through concrete experience
  • Practical work helps to understand the links to real life
  • A computer can’t reproduce the unpredictability of a live experiment that you get from practical work
  • Practical work can foster a respect for living things

So if you are part of a busy science department where do you start? With GCSE and A-level results out soon that need unpicking and analysing, schemes of work that need updating and timetables that need final tweaks there isn’t much time to look at ten benchmarks in detail. Schools are advised to focus on benchmarks 1,3 & 6 as these are enablers to the other benchmarks.  These are

(1) Planned practical science

(3) Expert teachers

(6)Technical support

which will help meet the target of 50% of science lessons containing a practical activity. Quite often 3 & 6 are out of the hands of the science department and are issues for government and the DfE.

Questions asked during the afternoon of the expert panel

The expert panel consisted of Professor Sir John Holman (Report author, RSC) John Dexter (Nottingham EIB, RSC) Marianne Cutler (ASE) Miranda Pye (Pye Tait Consultancy) and Dave Mangan (Nottinghamshire SLP)

Q – Are there any statistics/papers that demonstrate the impact of practical work in those schools or countries that do practical Vs those that do not?
A – There is very little quantitative evidence (partly because it is unethical) Practical work is intrinsic to science work -would you teach a language without speaking it? Is all we want to score highly on GCSE or should we be encouraging learners to follow a science career or to study science further? Do you worry that our curriculum is too narrow? They can pass exams but can they work as a team or present the results from something they’ve done to an audience. Practical work helps with preparing students for life after school for a productive life and to contribute to society and the economy.
Q – Has there been any interaction with Ofsted.
A – John Holman” be careful what you wish for” Matthew Newberry has fed back that Amanda Spielman knows about the report. Amanda had spoken about a change in the balance to the quality of the curriculum.
Q – Technicians – are there any academic references to the impact of technicians on outcomes?
A – John Dexter – unlikely to be any because of other local factors. ASE has technicians survey.  Could we do more to find out? John Holman – could a study put unnecessary pressure on technicians. A potential study wouldn’t work on exam results (too crude) but could on the retention of staff
Q – Do all countries do less practical in biology?
A – Biology practicals typically have a long setup, can be unreliable, take longer to run. There is a role for guidance from subject associations. Germany doesn’t do any microbiology because of health concerns so situation varies locally.
Q – Is this down to KS2?
A – Quality of science provision at KS2 depends largely on staff but some very creative work. More secondary schools are coming back to KS3 and looking how to bridge the gap between KS2 and ks4.  ASE resources for primary on their website. John Dexter mentioned the wasted years report.
Q – Will there be guidance about lab design for Benchmark 5.
A – John Holman had visited lots of labs and UK ranks well above average. Not the highest priority issue but with reconsidering in lab design. If you have world-class science labs, why aren’t you funding the staff & skills required to use them to their potential? Dave Mangan – it is possible with creative timetabling to share a smaller number of labs around a larger number of teachers.
Q – Why use the word policy? Why not a practical handbook or mission statement?
A – ASE writing policy with 12 schools. Card sort around what is a policy and what are procedural documents. Policy underpins what you do in your school and your setting. For the purposes, nature, planning and implementation of practical work. Health and safety is a supporting document. Those that already have a policy document were focused on administration and running practicals rather than the principles that underpin. Needs to involve all members of the department. John Dexter – Ofsted might go to policies if they don’t see good science in the classroom – ditch the admin in department meetings and talk about poetical work
Thoughts from the group I facilitated during the afternoon
  • A model policy must be usable, short and not long, waffly and full of gobbledegook.
  • We need time for CPD and to share information and good practice between departments
  • Needs to go back to ITT, one school reported they are worried about SCITT students and exposure to practical work
  • One school said they would share a practical session to department meetings as well as sharing good practice
  • Technicians – increased funding won’t be ring-fenced so unlikely to reach science departments. How do you convince SLT (who often don’t understand what they do) of their worth?
  • Would be useful to have specific examples of best practice in practical work
  • Are departments becoming more compartmentalized as more subject-based teaching happens at KS4? Is this getting worse with the shortening of KS3?

Anecdotal reports are coming through of Ofsted inspectors asking about the report, however, this is likely to depend on the background, awareness and subject specialisms of the individual Ofsted inspection team. I would strongly recommend that heads of science are familiar with the content of the report and have started to consider its implications for their own departments.