Earlier this week the Education Secretary called for practical science to count towards GCSE and A level exam grades. Ofqual and the exam boards in England have responded with their intention to continue with their current plans despite opposition.
There are strong opinions on both sides, however there is one perspective that risks being overlooked in the midst of all the discussion: that of the non-mainstream learner. Our chief executive, Dr Ros Morpeth, writes an open letter to the Education Secretary on behalf of the many young people and adults who study by non-traditional means.
I am writing with an additional perspective on this week’s debate about the inclusion of practicals in GCSE and A examinations on behalf of the thousands of young people and adults studying A level and GCSE sciences at home through distance and online learning and who have to enter the exams as private candidates.
The number of students taking science A levels and GCSEs who are not studying at school or college is substantial. It includes young people being home-schooled. By the Government’s own estimate, a minimum of 20,000 families have made the decision to educate their sons and daughters in this way - and the number is rising.
If you doubt the challenge of obtaining salts from sea water, investigating the field patterns of bar magnets or assessing the factors that influence the activity of enzymes in a domestic kitchen or bathroom, we are happy to take you to see one of NEC’s science students giving it a go. There are many ways to carry out scientific investigations at home in a way that makes for effective learning, but there is a big difference between carrying out an experiment in the spirit of discovery as part of a programme of study and conducting an experiment under exam conditions.
Graham Stuart MP, in his capacity as chair of the Education Select Committee, understands only too well the challenges faced by young people studying outside school when taking public examinations. The Committee concluded in its December 2012 report into home schooling that ‘it is “not reasonable” that some home-educated young people have poor access to public examinations’, calling on the Government to ensure fair access and to meet the associated costs. A rethink by Ofqual on the inclusion of science practical results in A level and GCSE final grades will put back up a barrier for home-schooled pupils just as it seemed to have been taken down.
We know from the enquiries we receive from potential students as a national distance learning provider of GCSEs and A levels that there is a high demand for science subjects from young people not able to study full-time at a school or college and from adults. These include people who want to retrain as physiotherapists or nurses (usually women), people on deployment in the armed services, people with disabilities, and men and women who have put their careers on hold to prioritise caring for children or older relatives. Some of them may not have had the opportunity to study science subjects at GCSE level at school. Others may have chosen to focus on the humanities at secondary level or when studying for their first degree.
Semta (the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies) has warned that the UK faces a shortfall of 80,000 workers by 2016. Already, the difficulties for independent students in gaining access to a science lab to do the practical work and take the practical assessment is a barrier for GCSE and A level science distance learners. If marks for practicals and the written exam are accredited separately as Ofqual proposes, more able people will be encouraged to sign up for science subjects. Reversing Ofqual’s decision would have the effect of dissuading young people and older students from opting for science subjects. Do we really want to risk losing what these often highly motivated young people and adults have to offer because of a decision to include the results for practicals in the final exam grade?
Your call this week to Ofqual to revise its thinking on science practicals works against the principal of access to written exams for private candidates that we know the education community, including the Education Select Committee, is keen to encourage. We invite you to help open up access for private candidates, not only by allowing Ofqual to exercise its independence but by asking exam centres to find ways to make it far easier than it is at the moment for private candidates to access them.