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Scientists Petition for Practical Science Grade to Remain Core

Sir Mark Walport, who was assigned to the post of Chief Science Advisor last year warns (the Prime Minister) David Cameron about the dangers of the education proposal which suggests removing practical lab classes from the core education—under the proposal, the classes will still be taught but the grades from experiments will no longer be added to the students’ final grade, nor will it affect their academic standing. Ofqual, the educational qualifications body wrote the proposal in response to education secretary Michael Gove’s complaints that the practical science grades were inflating students’ marks. He said that a lot of students who were flunking theoretical science were being rescued by their high practical marks.

In a letter addressed to Ofqual (copies of which were sent to the Prime Minister, Michael Gove, business secretary Vince Cable and cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood), Walport stresses the need for the practical sciences to remain vital to education. He said that putting emphasis purely on the theoretical aspect of science downgrades the skills of this generation’s scientists. He fears for their standing once they get into higher level education and ultimately, of the quality of their practices later on: whether these students become Doctors, biologists, physicists or chemists. Walport wrote the letter not just as the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, but also as co-chairman of the Council for Science and Technology (CST) on which most of the country’s most eminent scientists sit.

He further stresses that while theory is important, the nature of the scientific method is practical. He says it is impossible for the quality of studies in the sciences to improve if the educational system produces students who are under-qualified and who don’t know what to do in the lab. He said in his letter that he understands the concerns of the Department of Education about grade inflation but that this is more a matter of the malpractice of teachers when it comes to grading than it is of the importance of the practical sciences in education.

Sir John Tooke, who also sits on the CST, agrees with Walport: he adds that not only does the proposed change downgrade the students’ practical skills, it also damages their understanding of theory—he argues that theory and practice always go together. They are two sides of the same coin and without the one, the other will cease to function. He says that students learn concepts in their theory lectures but only fully understand them upon seeing how they take place in the lab. He urges the Department of Education to instead alter the way that these lab classes are treated. He stresses that lab experiment classes should feel less like a cooking show where students are handed recipes and more like an opportunity to challenge students to explore.

In response to the letter, Ofqual says that it was not their intention to downgrade the importance of skills that future scientists need—they will take the CST’s notes into account when revising the proposal.

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