Hands up for hands-on practical science

Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning, says our education system needs to increase hands-on, experimental work in science subjects to inspire young people and meet their skills needs. 

Teenage girls example a sample during a chemistry lesson

Credit: Tim Smith/Panos

Our data shows 29% of year 10 and 11 students doing practical science work less than once a month. We recommend at least fortnightly as an absolute minimum.

Today we launch the results from the first Science Education Tracker, a survey of 14 to 18 year olds’ attitudes towards and experiences of science education and careers. We want to share this new evidence to help improve future education policy and practice.

Most young people are positive about learning science and say that practical work encourages them to learn. Science is an inherently practical subject – young people need to do hands-on, practical experiments, not just learn scientific facts. More frequent practical work is associated with students’ perceptions of good teaching and higher overall school performance.

But our data reveals a worrying variation in the frequency of hands-on work, with 29% of year 10 and 11 students saying they do it less than once a month. Half reported doing practical work at least fortnightly and we recommend this as an absolute minimum.

We know that subject preferences are established early [PDF 1.3MB]. The survey also demonstrates that these preferences are heavily associated with their gender, ethnicity, and family and socioeconomic backgrounds. We believe that these imbalances won’t be addressed without improving science in primary schools.

The Science Education Tracker highlights the central role that teachers play in the lives of young people – teachers determine the nature of what is taught, provide career advice, give access to extracurricular opportunities and encourage learning.

What we’re doing to improve science education 

As part of our mission to improve health, Wellcome invests over £5 million a year on science education research, resources and activities – it’s one of our priorities.

  • Like many organisations with an interest in science education, we hope to see the assessment of hands-on practical skills reincorporated into science GCSEs and A levels. With the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, we’ve launched Assessing Practical Science Skills in Schools and Colleges, a new research funding scheme to explore more reliable and valid assessment methodologies.
  • Research we commissioned last year found that three-quarters of primary school teachers taught science for less than two hours a week. We’ve developed a new national collaborative campaign, Explorify, to improve the quality and quantity of primary science. It complements the BBC’s Terrific Scientific, which provides primary school children with amazing opportunities to engage in authentic experimental work.
  • All teachers of science need to keep up-to-date with the latest scientific research, and teaching practice. Professional development is especially important for teachers who are not teaching their specialist areas, as is often the case for science. Wellcome, the government and many other partners have invested nearly £50 million in Project ENTHUSE. This supports science teachers and technicians to attend professional development delivered by the National STEM Learning Centre. We also need to keep teachers in the profession and have commissioned research to help us better understand the factors that could improve science teacher retention, one of which might be professional development.

We look forward to working with the entire education community – students, teachers, governors, policymakers and researchers – to help make our vision for high-quality, inspiring science education in the UK a reality.

The tracker survey was done in state schools in England.