Wellcome Trust responds to announcement of science A-level reforms

The Wellcome Trust has expressed deep concern that Ofqual, the independent regulator of examinations and qualifications, has announced that it is going ahead with plans to change the way that science practical work is assessed at A level.

The changes mean that assessment of science A levels will be by written examination only, with students answering questions on practical work, rather than being externally assessed on the work itself. Students will still be expected to do practical work, but this will be assessed only as a pass/fail mark by their teacher and risks being deprioritised.

Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust, responds to this news: "The Wellcome Trust is deeply disappointed that Ofqual has ignored an overwhelming consensus from expert scientific bodies, universities and industry and decided to go ahead with plans to separate practical work from A-level science assessment. We fear that schools and colleges will struggle to prioritise rich practical experiences if they only yield a pass/fail mark – which universities tell us will be of little use in admissions. Furthermore, practical skills will not even be assessed at AS level. Students should not just learn about science, they must learn how to do science. If students do not acquire the appropriate practical skills, their progression will be limited. We know that practical work is highly motivating for students, and reducing this would undermine over a decade of work, from government departments and other organisations, to increase the number of students studying science and related subjects. We will be working with many others to try to ensure that students still have engaging and fulfilling practical work, but Ofqual is gambling with the scientific skills of individuals, and therefore also the UK's future workforce."

The Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation participated in the consultation process following the initial proposal of these changes, alongside other members of the science community. This includes the Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE), the British Science Association (BSA) and the Science Community Representing Education (SCORE), all of whom strongly objected to the proposed changes.

Sir John Holman, the Wellcome Trust’s Senior Adviser in Education added: "It is disappointing that Ofqual is going ahead with this unwise proposal. I believe it will lead to a deterioration in the quality of practical work in schools and colleges at a time when universities are already deeply concerned about the practical skills of new entrants. A simple pass/fail grade for practical skills is the worst of all available options because in reality universities are likely to overlook it when making decisions on admission, assuming that all the students they are interested in will pass. Schools may then draw the conclusion that practical skills do not matter in the vital business of university entrance."
The changes to A levels are due to be implemented in September 2015.