Students are not receiving the practical science education necessary to produce the next generation of scientists, MPs have warned.
A report by the Commons Science and Technology Committee says many children are missing out on the chance to do science experiments and study the subject outside the classroom. The report concludes that many students are receiving poor practical science experiences during their secondary school education.
Committee chair Andrew Miller said: “We heard evidence that the pressures of managing a busy curriculum, challenges in finding time for specialist continuing professional development, or time to get out of the classroom, are all factors contributing to a decline in the quality of practical science.
“This is worrying. If the UK is to be confident of producing the next generation of scientists, then schools - encouraged by the government - must overcome the perceived and real barriers to providing high quality practicals, fieldwork and fieldtrips.”
The MPs report says: “It is clear that the provision of practical classes, and how those are supplemented with fieldwork and field trips, varies from the excellent to the dull or non-existent.
“On health and safety, we found no credible evidence to support its oft-cited explanation for decline of practicals and work outside the classroom.
“While ‘health and safety’ may be used as a convenient excuse for avoiding practicals and work outside the classroom, we consider that there are more fundamental reasons why many students are receiving poor practical science experiences during their school education.”
The report later says that there is “no convincing evidence that health and safety legislation itself prevents science practicals or field trips”. It goes on to say that teachers should be given the information to make decisions about health and safety, adding: “It appears that teachers may cite health and safety when they are unsure of their ability to carry out a field trip or believe that the volume and nature of paperwork will outweigh any benefits of taking on the trip.”
The report found that more needs to be done to encourage schools to make sure their science teachers’ knowledge is up to date. And schools also need good science laboratories and technicians, it says.
“A school providing science courses at GCSE and A level should be required to demonstrate, during Ofsted inspection, it has ready access to a basic suite of facilities such as fume cupboards to facilitate rigorous examination of science skills,” the report concludes.
The cross-party group of MPs also said practical work should be included in exams.
The report calls for Ofsted to direct exam boards to make field work part of science courses, so that pupils collect data outside of the classroom and prove a level of competence in analysing it.
There should also be exams that test pupils’ laboratory skills and the understanding of the experimental process, it says, to ensure the best possible use of science facilities.
The report comes as a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggested that formal science lessons have a bigger impact on pupils’ results than related extra-curricular activities, private tuition or other exercises.
Andreas Schleicher, author of the OECD’s Education at a Glance said: “When you look at the share of science learning time that happens inside schools, in regular lessons, you can see a very powerful determinant of the quality of learning outcomes.
“Basically, having lots of things around students in school is not so important as providing really good science classes in regular school lessons."
He added: “One of the things our data suggests is the number of hours of science learning delivered in formal settings actually is quite significantly related to outcomes.
“One science lesson more may be something you can see in outcomes.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “Science is key to our economic future – it’s these subjects that universities and employers are demanding so they can compete internationally.
“That’s why we are overhauling the science curriculum - freeing up teachers to be more creative in the classroom, such as with experiments. And we’re recruiting the brightest science graduates into teaching to inspire their pupils, as well as investing £135 million up until 2015 in science and maths education.
“We’ve brought in new commonsense health and safety advice for schools, to make sure that children don't miss out on field trips or science experiments.”