Report outlines 10 steps to improve practical science education

The Gatsby Charitable Foundation’s ‘Good Practical Science’ studied more than 400 English secondary schools to gauge the status of practical science.

A new report, ‘Good Practical Science’, details recommendations to help schools achieve world-class science education. The research, led by Sir John Holman, follows visits to world-leading nations including Finland, Germany and Singapore to learn what was done differently internationally.

John Holman, emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of York and a former headteacher, said: “Time and time again we have seen that practical science is key not only for learning, but also for inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers and technicians. The benchmarks presented in this report reflect world-leading standards and we hope to empower our teachers by giving them the tools to include practical science in a greater proportion of their lessons.” 

By international standards, the UK is well provisioned to deliver practical science, but at a time when schools in England are under intense pressure to perform, that delivery is at risk. Compared to the other countries visited, the accountability system in England is the most intense, narrowing teachers’ choices and constraining practical science.

John Holman added: “The most important ingredient for good practical science is the teachers who deliver it. In every country we visited, we saw that teachers with good subject knowledge have the confidence to do engaging practical science, and the expertise to explain it. But in more than a quarter of schools – 28% – teaching A level in England, some A level science students have a teacher who has no more than an A level themselves in the subject they are teaching. Too often our teachers are being asked to deliver practical science that is outside their comfort zone.”

Despite its global perspective, the Good Practical Science report presents achievable goals to help schools on the journey to achieving world-class science education, even in the face of tight budgets.

John Holman again: “By far the greatest cost in delivering good practical science is teachers’ time, a cost that schools are already committed to, so in the end it is for headteachers and science heads to decide.

“Our benchmarks show what needs to be done to deliver practical science that is world class. By achieving that, we will engage students, whether or not they pursue science in the future, in the essence of what it is to be a scientist.”

Shaun Reason, Chief Executive of the Association for Science Education, said: “We have long championed purposeful and effective practical science as an essential part of a rounded science education for all young people and so we wholeheartedly welcome this report. It’s a clear reminder of the importance and value of effective practical work.

“We agree with the report’s assertion that a school’s progress in improving practical science can best be made by prioritising the benchmarks around planned practical science, expert teachers and technical support. To this end, and drawing on the experience of our many engaged members, we are committed to providing guidance for planning for success, and will continue to work with our colleagues in the science education community to support schools in working towards all the benchmarks.”

Paula Bull, science teacher at Westminster Academy in London, said: “Hands-on practical work is an essential part of science learning. As a parent and science teacher, I have always recognised and promoted the value of practical science in schools. That’s why I would recommend the Good Practical Science report as a vital addition for all science teachers in the UK. This report, and the benchmarks it outlines, should be invaluable for school leaders, science teachers, technicians and everybody with a stake in science education.

“In particular, I’m delighted to see the report highlight that practical science is as highly regarded as ever. I hope it can spur schools on to continue developing their science teaching practise, so that they can continue to build skills and attitudes that are so valuable for young people.”

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