Education & Family

'Poorest pupils miss out on practical science lessons'

Image copyright JOHN MORTON
Image caption Too few students are offered practical science lessons, says the study

The poorest pupils are most likely to miss out on practical science lessons in English schools, a study suggests.

Over a quarter of GCSE students take little or no part in practical science experiments, according to a survey of 4,081 pupils for the Wellcome Trust.

These inequalities were unacceptable, said the trust's head of education, Hilary Leevers.

The government said science education was crucial and that England's top pupils were "amongst the world's best".

The researchers questioned a representative sample of 14- to 18-year-olds at schools across England, including more than 2,000 studying for their GCSEs.

Among the GCSE students:

  • 45% said they did hands-on practical work in science lessons at least once a fortnight
  • 29% said they had practical lessons less than once a month or never
  • 58% said they wanted more practical science in lessons, rising to 76% among students taking a single-science GCSE

More than one in five of the teenagers questioned said that "a lot of the time" they simply followed instructions when they did experiments, without properly understanding the scientific point of the work.

The report found that young people from deprived areas did less practical science at GCSE than those from better off areas:

  • 36% of GCSE students from the most deprived areas did hands-on practical work at least once a month
  • 54% of students from the wealthiest areas did hands-on practical work at least once a month

And about 83% of students on the more demanding triple-science course, which counts as three GCSEs, had done more advanced practicals, such as designing and conducting their own experiments, compared with 62% of single-science pupils.

Three-quarters of the young people surveyed took double or triple science at GCSE, but teenagers from the most deprived areas were more likely than better off pupils to take single science, the researchers found.

Image copyright IOP
Image caption Students taking double and triple science GCSEs are more likely to be offered practical lessons, says the report

'Deeply concerning'

Dr Leevers, said the lack of practical science offered to some students was "unacceptable" and called for inequalities in practical science provision to be addressed.

"Science is an inherently practical subject," she said in her foreword to the report.

"Young people shouldn't just be learning scientific, facts they should be learning how to experiment.

"It's great to see the positivity that so many young people have towards learning science.

"Young people said that practical work encourages them to learn science, and most want to do more.

"At the very least, all schools should ensure that they join the half of schools giving their students hands-on science at least once a fortnight."

Michael Reiss, professor of science education at UCL Institute of Education, called the numbers of pupils missing out on experiments at school "deeply concerning".

"It is even more troubling to find that disadvantaged students are over-represented in this group," he added.

A Department for Education spokesman said studying science was crucial to helping all young people fulfil their potential.

The spokesman said England performed above the OECD average in school science results.

"England's top-performing pupils are amongst the world's best 15-year-olds in science," said the spokesman.

The spokesman said new science GCSEs introduced this academic year "require students to undertake a greater breadth of practical work".

"The new science curriculum also includes working scientifically, which should be taught as an integral part of the subject content," said the spokesman.

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