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Today Ofqual have announced a new approach to assessment of practical work in GCSE science qualifications for September 2016 onwards.

The new approach in which 'students should be assessed on their knowledge of practical work and experimentation, rather than on the actual undertaking of practicals’, will mean that from 2016 there will be no direct assessment of practical skills.

Students' experimentation skills will be assessed through their response to exam questions, 15% of which will focus on knowledge that has been gained through actual practical work. Those students who do not take part in practical activities will in theory be disadvantaged when it comes to taking the exams.

The Society of Biology with the other partner organisations of SCORE (Science Community Representing Education) responded to the consultation on this matter which closed in February this year. The Society will continue to offer support to Ofqual to ensure practical work remains a high priority in schools.

Rachel Lambert-Forsyth MSB, director of education and training at the Society of Biology said:
“We acknowledge that there are issues with the current system of assessing practical work in biology and the other sciences and therefore agree with Ofqual’s view that the status quo should not remain. However, we continue to seek clarity on how practical work will be encouraged in schools and how Ofqual and other regulatory bodies will encourage schools to offer practical opportunities (both in the lab and field) above and beyond the eight specified in the criteria.”

The Society welcome Ofqual’s acknowledgement that ‘practical work is central to good science qualifications' and we are pleased to see that there is a stipulated requirement for practical work. Schools and students will need to keep records to show that practical work is taking place, but how this will be done is at the discretion of the individual teacher to meet the needs of their students.

For biology, chemistry and physics there is a minimum requirement for students to participate in eight practical activities for each GCSE. For students taking the double science GCSE there will be a minimum of 16 practical activities to complete. This is an increase on the amount of practical work required by the current controlled assessment system, however the Society would like to emphasise that this figure is a minimum, and that undertaking a wide variety of practical work is an integral part of any science qualification.

Taking part in practical activities and understanding how we come to conclusions through experimentation, is a vitally important part of science. We hope to see in the awarding bodies’ specifications and through schemes of work that there will be many opportunities throughout the different courses for students to take part in practical activities that go far beyond the minimum requirement.

The Society of Biology will continue to work with Ofqual and the awarding bodies to ensure that schools are prepared for the new science GCSEs by offering support with biology practical work through resources such as practical biology. We will also work towards ensuring that schools are informed of what the new practical aspects will entail, and can ensure that they are adequately resourced to support their students.