Do we value practical science?

The Ri's Director of Science and Education Gail Cardew responds to Ofqual's announcement that science practicals will no longer count towards A-level grades.

Students taking part in a bacterial evolution workshop in the L'Oréal Young Scientist Centre.
Royal Institution


10 April 2014

We believe curiosity and creativity are essential to the pursuit of science, and we have made it our mission for over 215 years to engage and enthuse the public of all ages with the wonders and applications of science.

Yesterday's announcement by Ofqual that science practicals will no longer count towards the main A-level grade is disappointing and frustrating if it leads to a devaluation of experimentation in the eyes of teachers and students.

Most, if not all, of the world's greatest scientific discoveries were a result of a scientist, or team of scientists, thinking creatively to challenge accepted assumptions and devoting years of their life to find answers to questions they could not ignore.

Practical lab skills are essential to this creative process, providing the tools with which these scientists, and their peers, can prove their blue sky theories have solid evidence behind them and an applied value. Our archives are full to bursting with pages and pages of lab notes from scientists such as Faraday, Davy and Lonsdale as they trialled and errored their way to fundamental knowledge we now take for granted.

Our society relies on the innovation that stems in one way or another from applied and pure laboratory research and all industries rely on scientific discoveries in order to advance. The scientists and engineers working in these laboratory environments need to be trained to do so effectively.

Removing the practical assessment from a set of exams which play a huge role in determining a young person’s career path might make it even harder for higher education providers and future employers to identify the young people with the most suitable skills and aptitude for the degree or job they are applying for.

If our future scientists are not encouraged to develop the ability to test their theories through rigorous experimentation or, even more importantly, to develop the desire to do so, they will never be able to apply their newfound knowledge to help solve the world's biggest challenges.

We appreciate that teaching cutting edge practical science creatively and effectively in the classroom can be challenging for all sorts of reasons. This is why we are working harder than ever to provide all children and young people, society's next generation of scientists and engineers, with opportunities to explore and experience real-life science that complement and enrich what they learn in school.

We run hundreds of workshops each year in our imaginative laboratory space the L'Oréal Young Scientist Centre, our national network of mathematics, engineering and computer science Masterclasses stretches from Aberdeen to Jersey, and our critically acclaimed science video platform the Ri Channel reaches a truly global audience.

Dr Gail Cardew is the Ri's Director of Science and Education as well as the Chair of the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) Supervisory Board, a member of the Advisory Board for the Gothenburg Science Festival, the AXA Scientific Search Committee, the European Institute of Science and Society and the Editorial Board of the Euroscientist. From 2006–2012 she was Vice President of Euroscience, and in 2012 she sat on the Canadian Foundation for Innovation Multidisciplinary Assessment Committee.

Further information

The changes announced by Ofqual on 9 April 2014 mean that assessment of science A-levels will be by written examination only, with students answering questions on practical work, instead of being externally assessed on the work itself. Practical work will continue to be taught, but it will only be assessed as a pass/fail mark by their teacher and will not contribute to the main A-level grade.

The changes to A-levels are due to be implemented in September 2015.

Find out more here.