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Science needs hands on

What's happening here? Whatever it is, it's not worth examining
I had the pleasure last week of speaking at event for heads of science from secondary schools in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Before my own session I sat in on their get-together where they were primarily discussing the many and byzantine changes to the exam system that the government and Mr Gove's latest whims have brought about.

Two things struck me as an outsider. One was that, rather than simplifying the exam system, every change seemed to make it more complicated. Rather like the way the tax system has got more and more complex over the years, the exam system, particularly once you take in GCSEs, iGCSE equivalents, GCE, BTEC, requirements for the eBac, the three buckets* etc etc has become a tangled mess. Frankly both could do with a 'start again from the beginning', though I accept that the last thing teachers need is yet another upheaval.

However one specific thing stuck out like the veritable sore thumb. In describing the revised A-levels to be implemented in a couple of years' time, there was a statement that was so bizarre that it could only have come from an arts or history graduate. (What did Mr Gove study?) It seems that in the new A-levels, practicals will not contribute at all to the final grade. Apparently, the government is so obsessed with moving to 'traditional' exams and away from coursework, with that dangerous possibility of influence from the teachers creeping in, that they won't be counting any form of practical examination towards grades, as they can't be sensibly externally marked.

This is just ludicrous. Even if you are 'back to the way it was in our day' mode, practicals played an important part in A-level exams 30 or 40 years ago. Of course there are purely theoretical scientists, but to exclude the importance of experimentation for everyone at age 17 or 18 makes no sense. Practical skills in experiments should be as important in science as maths or remembering formulae - quite possibly more so. Let's face it, Michael Faraday would not have got far with an exam where the grade entirely ignored practical ability.

I am more than mind-boggled, I am fuming. Which means I probably should be in a fume cupboard. But whether or not a student could manage this we will never know, because doing experiments is apparently not significant in science any more.

* Don't ask. But it is the official term.

Image from Wikipedia

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