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The impact of qualification reform on A level science practical work

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Ofqual has released research exploring the perspectives of teachers implementing the changes to A level science practical work after one year.

Executive Summary:


The findings suggest that the reform has been received in a largely positive way by most teachers. There was a strong level of discontent with the pre-reform system, which was considered overly prescriptive, unreliable and open to malpractice. Though views were varied, many teachers believed the post-reform system would allow them to better integrate practical work with the course content and would encourage them to deliver more practical work in a more supportive and valuable way.

Key Findings:

Quantity of practical work

  • A sense of ‘business as usual’, at least in terms of how much practical work students are doing, was commonly expressed.    
  • There was a clear sense that, in terms of the amount of practical work undertaken, the impact of the reform on a school or college would depend on the size of their classes and the availability of laboratory space and apparatus.
  • Some of the teachers discussed how the reform had introduced a greater amount of subject content to cover and placed a stronger emphasis on mathematical skills. This was perceived by some teachers as a threat to how much practical work they could realistically deliver and a sense of competing priorities.
    • This point illustrates an issue for any qualification reform - that multiple elements of a qualification are changed simultaneously and it is not always clear how these changes will interact.      


Type of practical work

  • Several teachers suggested that the reform had caused them to change the emphasis of their practical work; whereas previously they had used practical sessions to set up demonstrations for the purpose of illustrating theory, they were now using sessions to teach and practice technical skills.
    • This shift was mostly perceived as positive by those who discussed it, with teachers suggesting that it would instil students with greater hands on experience and a greater breadth of practical skills.
  • Some of the teachers thought that the need to cover the CPAC competencies, combined with the increased freedom of the post-reform arrangements, provided them with greater opportunity to foster investigative skills.
  • There was also a more positive view about how the type of practical work required by the reformed qualifications may assist students in making the transition to university


Student motivation for practical work

  • In broad terms, there were three distinct views about how the reform would affect student motivation for practical work:
  1. that the reform has not had a substantial impact on the attitudes or motivation of students, who either like or dislike practical work regardless of how it is assessed
  2. that, because of a more contextualised and less high stakes approach to assessment, the reformed qualifications have led to students becoming better engaged with practical work; and
  3. that the reformed qualifications are causing students to become less motivated by practical work because they prefer to focus on elements of the course that will directly contribute to their primary grade.
  • The evidence suggests that the reform may not have the same effect in each school or college; factors determined by the context of the individual school and its student intake are interacting with factors relating to the reform.


Assessment quality and fairness

  • Though perceived to be an improvement on what had preceded it, there was still a mixed reception for the post-reform assessment arrangements.
    • Many teachers expressed uncertainty and concern about how consistently the CPAC could be assessed;
    • Linked to this was a concern about assessing a full class of students simultaneously and how this might impact on the quality of that assessment
    • A number of teachers suggested that the new questions in the exams would not provide a valid assessment of practical skills because they relied on knowledge about skills rather than their physical execution

Administrative burden and resource intensity

  • Several teachers suggested the reform had burdened them with significantly more paperwork because they were now required to track students’ progress against the various skills and competencies that underpin the endorsement
  • Other teachers thought that the post-reform system was equally burdensome but that the workload was more evenly distributed throughout the duration of the course.
  • Many of the teachers expressed dissatisfaction with the speed at which reform had been introduced and how this had impeded their ability to understand and deliver the new qualifications to a high standard.


About the research:

  • Qualitative research study that was carried out in Spring 2016.
  • Thirty-eight A level science teachers from 14 schools/colleges took part in either an interview or a focus group
  • Note that the sample is self-selecting and small, so results cannot be generalised further.
Page Published: 11/08/2017