Promising practicals

Alan Maude shares his experience of implementing changes to A-level science practical work at Farlington

Farlington Science staff and students are adapting to the introduction of the new Practical Endorsement changes that came into place in September 2015 for A-level sciences.

Practical work has always been central to the way science is taught at Farlington, but this is apparently not the case in many other schools and colleges up and down the country. Universities have been complaining for years that students are arriving under-prepared for the rigors of their chosen degree courses. The government, in conjunction with The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), has therefore made it very clear that they want practical work to be central to the delivery of the new A-level specifications that were put into place in September 2015.

Why has assessment of practical work in A-level Biology, Chemistry and Physics been changed? Previously, practical work was assessed through tasks set by either the exam board or teachers that were marked by the teacher or the exam board, with this outcome contributing to the overall qualification grade. There were also individual investigative projects which were written up as a coursework component that could be marked by teachers or sent to the exam board for marking. Some concerns were raised with this system, including the potential for malpractice, the limited ability to validate results across exam boards, and students’ grades for practical work often being bunched at the high end of the mark range. Higher education institutions were concerned about the level of practical skills of students entering their courses and this is a significant reason why changes have been made.   

 

A Farlington student in science class

Throughout the summer term, heads of department were busy planning and writing new practical activities for their students to experience. Teachers now have to ensure that all students learn specific skills and techniques. In Biology, they must know how to use a microscope to measure the sizes of cells, chemists must be able to carry out titrations with precision, and physicists must be able to investigate ionising radiation practically.

Each science has 12 core pieces of practical work that must be taught, and during these activities the girls must experience many more skills and techniques. This means six pieces of practical work in the AS year and six pieces in the A2 year – not quite as simple as that. At Farlington we have always used practical work to further the girls’ understanding, so we have added extra activities to make sure techniques are mastered and the girls are confident in their subject knowledge.

All the practical work is recorded by the girls in a laboratory book that is checked by their teachers. This will add to the computer-generated evidence that teachers are required to keep. We are expecting an assessor to arrive in the school sometime this term. They will want to see schemes of work with the practical work embedded in it, the records we keep for individual girls, their laboratory books, and also witness the girls actually doing some practical work. Once we have been given the ‘green light’, then we can award the girls either a pass or fail at the end of the A-level course – this is recorded separately to their A-level examination grade. We have guidelines to follow for this, and by the second year of A-level we expect our students to be planning and carrying out their own investigations. We will expect full and detailed results, graphs and conclusions.

This increased emphasis on practical work will produce a fully-rounded investigative scientist, ready for the challenges of further study.

Alan Maude is Head of Faculty: Mathematics and Natural Sciences at Farlington School

www.farlingtonschool.net 

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