Curriculum constraints affecting the amount of practical work in school science lessons

Time constraints restricting practical school science lessons

An overloaded national curriculum is one of the things restricting practical science work, a teacher says.

Greg Jones, an affiliated teacher with the National Union of Teachers (NUT), told the Commons Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into practical experiments in school science lessons and field trips that constraints in the curriculum meant the amount of practical work being done was very small.

Jones said the freedom that teachers had in the curriculum in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s had been whittled away. He was concerned there was too much in the national curriculum and science was getting “squeezed”.

Time and financial constraints were also other reasons why practical experiments and field trips were in decline, he said. Teacher demonstrations had increased, not because of health and safety issues, but because of time, Jones said.

Kevin Courtney, the deputy general secretary of the NUT, said there was a focus on exam results and a school’s league table position.

“What we would like to see is children enjoying science, being enthused by it, and sometimes that can take longer than preparing a child to answer an examination question.”

In the NUT’s written evidence to the committee, it said practical work was crucial to the teaching of science. It recommended that the assessment process include a “significant amount of work” related to experiments and field trips that can be marked and moderated, and hoped that despite squeezed budgets, the Government give “serious consideration to how it will structure funding to ensure all children can access practical and outdoor learning experiences”.

The NUT also said teacher training and professional development needed to be re-examined so that teachers had time to experiment with a wide range of practical work and develop their expertise of lessons based on practical science and field work. The NUT said health and safety risk assessments needed to be re-examined, and schools needed simple guidance on how and what to risk assess.

Professor Chris King, from the Earth Science Teachers’ Association (ESTA) said he would like to see an accredited course for field work. ESTA said the course should focus on the leadership of effective investigational fieldwork and how to successfully implement it, and in the safest and most healthy ways.

The National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) said there was no credible evidence that practical experiments in science lessons in schools or science field trips may be in decline. A survey of members’ failed to identify health and safety responsibilities related to learning outside the classroom or practical activities as significant, it said.

Learning outside the classroom could provide valuable educational experiences and curriculum enrichment, providing it was planned, properly resourced, linked to the curriculum and clearly identified intended learning outcomes, the NASUWT said.

Government reforms placed current curricular entitlements to learning outside the classroom and practical activities at risk, it said. Cuts in school budgets and local authority budgets were also likely to lead to pressures on schools to limit practical science work, based on their relatively high cost, as well as increased financial demands being made of parents, the NASUWT said.

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