Practical skills at A level – flavour of the month or a nasty taste?

By Ed Walsh

Barely a week goes by now without another A level science specification being approved by Ofqual. Although the awarding organisations have given their courses a distinctive flavour, there are of course certain common characteristics. Irrespective of how much shopping around is done, this is the common headline.Assessment for Learning in practical science

Assessment of practical skills

The one that’s had the most coverage is, of course, the assessment of practical skills. There’s a bit of folklore in circulation that, as there will no longer be a practical examination in the A level exams, that practical skills count for nothing and aren’t being valued. I have to say, that no one I’ve spoken to who has had any involvement with this development, has questioned the importance of scientific enquiry or the skills and processes that make it up. The issue is how to assess them in a way that doesn’t distort the focus of teaching, make students ‘jump through hoops’ or result in data with questionable validity.

Each specification lists stipulated practical investigations that students are expected to carry out. Most teachers will go further but all will do these specifications…. For the following reasons;

  • a good practical, well introduced and effectively supported, is a good way of developing the understanding of key concepts
  • students are going to be repeatedly questioned on their understanding and application of them. To the tune of 15% of the marks in the final exams
  • teachers will be assessing practical competencies. These lead to a separate endorsement but will also provide a good opportunity to provide developmental feedback in a formative way
  • someone is going to come visiting and will want to see evidence and talk to people.

Still in any doubt that practical work is important?

These are important messages and ones that people in your A level team need to know about. A great way of getting up to speed on this and other issues is to come along to one of the events that the Science Learning Network is running on the new A Level specifications. Each is supported by AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas (WJEC’s English operation) and OCR so you can compare the offers. See what’s the same, what varies and which ones are best for you.

Also worthwhile seeing is what else is changing? For example, the mathematical content. In developing the new courses, awarding organisations had to talk to universities and see what they thought about the existing A levels. They were pretty happy with the content but less complimentary about the mathematical skills that newly recruited undergraduates were starting out with – so a fire has been lit under this one. Final exams will now have at least 10% of the marks in biology going on questions with a level of mathematical challenge equivalent to a GCSE grade C, 20% in chemistry and 40% in physics.(Source: DFE paper DFE 00356 2014: GCE AS and A level subject content for biology, chemistry, physics and psychology)

There will be more Science Learning Network courses coming along next year to support the implementation of these specifications, including exploring how assessments are changing. Things are cooking up – make sure they’re to your taste.

Other relevant courses;

Resourcing the New Mathematics Curriculum

Developing the STEM Curriculum through Practical Learning

Practical Work in Biology

Practical Work in Chemistry

Practical Work in Physics

The UK Teachers at CERN Programme

Alaric Thompson

This CERN education programme is run by the National Science Learning Centre and CERN Education and I was delighted to be able to attend with around 25 other teachers during October 2014.Cern Visit. Inside the dome

After calculating that the ENTHUSE Award would be enough for fees, costs and cover it was not difficult to persuade Senior Leadership Team that the course would be worthwhile in terms of personal continuing professional development (CPD), benefit to my school and students, and even benefit to the staff and students in my local network of schools.

My visit to CERN included a series of lectures which extended my knowledge of the history, function and engineering of CERN, the way the accelerators and detectors work, the particle physics involved and some of the spin off benefits like antiproton beam therapy.

The afternoons were spent visiting various experimental facilities and of course the high point of the week was seeing the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS )detector, wide open in its enormous cavern and almost close enough to touch. However other experiments were just as interesting and in fact added more to my knowledge and experience than did the CMS. The anti-proton decelerator experiments and the CERN based, control centre of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on board the International Space Station are two examples.

Dining in the legendary CERN restaurant is an experience in itself, surrounded by physicists in all stages of their careers as well as engineers, programmers, technicians, administrators…the list goes on. We were at CERN during a relatively quiet time as the beams were being tested and the detectors refurbished, but he number of people still going through the restaurant gave an impression of the sheer scale and truly international nature of the venture.

Of course an important part of any course is the networking that goes on in between sessions and there was plenty of opportunity to get to know the diverse range of teachers on the course; physicists, chemists and engineers teaching GCSE, A level and Scottish highers. Conversations didn’t just include particle physics and the immense engineering project that is the Large Hadron Collider and I benefited hugely from the chance to spend time with like-minded people, away from the pressure of planning and marking.

CERN Visit. The CMSThe return to school after such an amazing week was made easier by colleagues and students who were really keen to know how the course had gone, what CERN is like and to discuss the new physics that I had learned. In fact three weeks later I am still getting lots of questions, which is fantastic because the aim now is to spread that knowledge and experience amongst colleagues and students not just in my own school but also in the network of schools in my area.

I’m putting together presentations based on the slides shared with us on the course and also using the many animations available at CERN Education (which I didn’t know about before the course and are publicly available).

I have returned to school with a renewed passion for particle physics, a desire to share my awe of the engineering involved and a confidence to talk about a subject that previously I ‘kind of knew a bit about’.

For a detailed look at the programme we followed visit and for the next UK Teachers Course to CERN I highly recommend it.

You will also find a full range of images on my G+  photo album of the CERN visit.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

by Gemma Taylor

What do you want to be when you grow up?


“Doctor”Cad design of a car to support teacher industrial placement scheme


“Fashion designer”

Sound familiar?

When asked at the age of 14 what I wanted to do when I grew up, I answered “football player or coach.” Maybe I was still riding the high of watching Leicester City beat Tranmere Rovers in the FA League Cup. Maybe it was the years of playing football and my love of PE that let me imagine it was the only career that ever existed. At the age of 19 I found myself at university, about to start a mechanical engineering and design degree, so you may ask – what made me change my mind?

Life is about answering questions – both big and small

We seek evidence from the world around us, we consider our own experiences and we act to make the best decisions that we can. As an engineer, I used my education and training to answer business questions every day. However, life became a little more complicated when I started my role as a secondary school design and technology teacher. A typical day of questions starts with the obvious, “Do you have a pen I can borrow miss?” From then on, don’t be surprised if the topics vary from what you have watched on television over the past 24 hours to personal health and the top speed of a Bugatti Veyron. We are seen by students as a complete source of knowledge, but “with great power, comes great responsibility” and when a student is asking you for advice on what they should do with their life, never is this responsibility felt more.

With great power, comes great responsibility

As a teacher of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject I always try to encourage my students to achieve their best in all the areas of STEM, giving themselves the best chance for the future. But what futures are available to them? Students need real world examples of the careers their favourite subjects can lead to and what the next steps are to achieve them. A great example of this is given in the recent collaborative report by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, together with Mindshare. The report is titled Project STEM: A Book of Insights and discusses the findings of research conducted into the views of a selection of Y9, Y11 and Y12 students. The report’s findings on the negative perceptions of STEM subjects’ makes for tough reading but rings familiar with the students I have met in my classroom. Maths “It’s not relevant”, technology “Lacks social kudos” and science is “difficult beyond GCSE”. Our job as STEM teachers is to bring the reality of our subject into the classroom and break these perceptions apart. We need to show our students the variety of career options that are available to them, the diverse range of careers that use the STEM subjects and the different entry routes that they can take to start their career. My dream is to have a school of students that never need to ask the question. “What should I do when I leave school?” because they will already know the answer from their years of studying.

So, if you agree with the above and you want to incorporate more STEM relevant careers information into your lessons, what is there to help?

The National STEM Centre has a library of online careers resources that are available for you to download.

The STEM ambassador programme will support your school to engage students in STEM careers through visiting STEM professionals.

The National Science Learning Centre has courses running throughout the year that include careers specific learning for STEM. They are also running a two-week teacher placement scheme in partnership with the Institute of Mechanical Engineering and the Institute of Engineering and Technology. Placing teachers of STEM subjects with engineering and technology employers for a ten day hands on experience of what it is like to work in the engineering and technology sector.

Finally, if you were wondering what it was that changed my mind from pursuing a football career to becoming an engineer, simple, my physics teacher.


P.S. You may also be interested in reading Jo Cox’s blog about her experience on the Teacher Industrial Partnership scheme.

STEM teachers taking a break from the classroom – Teacher Industrial Partners’ Scheme (#TIPS)

Science Learning Centres:

An almost live blogging experience of our new Teacher Industrial Partnership scheme (TIPS) from Jo Cox. Some fabulous insights into apprentices experiences and views from their time at school to becoming apprentices.

Originally posted on Redmoor STEM:

Day 2

Today was very much a fact-finding exercise and most of the days’ discussions, with marketing, business management, apprentices, was spent discussing the perception of this scheme. I spoke to apprentices in business management and engineering and their views were fairly uniform: three of the 9 students I spoke to had opted for the apprenticeship scheme rather than A levels – even though their teachers were recommending the A level and university route. At the point of making their own minds up about taking an apprenticeship they felt they were ‘side lined’ by their teachers as if they had made the wrong decision. They received no encouragement and it was seen very much as a negative step – even though all 3 are now fully engaged in their chosen professions, earning good money with an almost 100% guarantee of being offered a permanent job once they complete their studies…

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Free to schools: international school reviews

by Martin Ripley.

Imagine a room in which the headteachers and staff of three schools have gathered. They are there to share information and organise visits Teaching and learning in the science classroomto each other’s school. They have agreed to focus on maths and science learning, looking at student behaviour in the classroom, the ways in which lessons are planned and experienced by students, homework, students’ aspirations and parental support for learning.

Nothing so extraordinary so far.

But what would be unusual about the three schools that I have in mind, is that they are from Shanghai, Finland and Canada – three of the top ten performing education systems in the latest PISA international report. I imagine that learning in each of those three areas would be a quite different experience and I imagine that all three would have a lot to learn from each other.

I would like to think that Secretaries of State for Education meeting colleagues from such educational systems would be similarly inquisitive about how learning is organised in many different, successful forms….. but that might be wishful thinking.

What surprises me about these international education studies is that schools, thought leaders and educators do not make more use of the data.

Years of work go into the preparation of these studies, with draft questionnaires tried out, trial tests, field trials, international expert review groups, international marker training, data analysis and report writing. And yet in the majority of cases, our only significant awareness of the studies is when a Secretary of State for Education in England makes an announcement about our latest national league table ranking.

There is much richness in these studies for schools, headteachers, governors and heads of department. Shortly, around 600 schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be selected for the 2015 PISA and TIMSS [1] studies.  For each of those schools, the fact that they have been randomly selected to participate in the next round of studies represents an opportunity to find out more about themselves and to compare their own school to schools worldwide from over 70 countries. Aside from the time of staff and pupils in some preparation and in the one day of assessment itself, there is no cost to a school.

Each school participating in the international studies will receive a bespoke and confidential school report. The report will show a range of information gathered from questionnaires and tests. For me, some of the most interesting data always comes from the questionnaires that accompany these international studies. There is the opportunity for a school to find how it compares internationally in relation to a wide range of questions. For example they will find out about:

  • students’ enjoyment of maths, science, problem solving and reasoning lessons
  • behaviour in the classroom and teachers’ expectations of student achievement
  • length of lessons, length of the school day, amount of homework
  • parental attitudes, active parental involvement in learning and homework
  • reward systems
  • the amount of time and focus for CPD and teacher training

For subject leaders, there is the opportunity to find out about how subjects are organised, in what sequence and at what age content is deemed appropriate; and to find out about contrasting profiles in student performance across the range of topics and skills covered in each subject.

Beyond the immediate interests of schools, the full data collected from these international studies is made freely available to researchers and educators. My hope would be that teacher associations and subject associations would see the value in commissioning their own investigations and publish useful reports based on these international data.

Considering the benefits to schools selected to participate in these studies, as a school governor I would always expect my headteacher to be pleased and gratified to have been selected.

These studies have a value far beyond the media headlines and league tables: the benefits to schools, teachers and pupils should not be underestimated.

Teenage Boys and Reading

Do you know that the contrast in performance of boys and girls in reading at age 15 is a feature in almost every educational system in the world, regardless of language and regardless of culture? For teachers of English and parents encouraging teenagers to read, it is striking that this attitudinal issue occurs everywhere.
It is PISA studies over a number of years that have revealed this striking finding.

Martin Ripley is CEO of World Class Arena, part of the consortium of companies that manage international studies in the UK (excluding Scotland).

[1] PISA stands for the Programme for International Student Achievement. TIMSS stands for Trends in Maths and Science Survey.

Everyone can do maths – and frequently does

By Claire Arbery

I recently had the pleasure of attending a Royal Society fringe event where Dame Julia Higgins of the Royal Society, presented their vision for Maths and Science for next 20 years.Maths equation for engineering

Currently, we will not meet UK skill needs for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) related jobs for the next 20 years. The UK has huge strengths in Maths and Science, but there is a significant problem for STEM as we face rising competition from overseas and long term changes are needed.

One of the most interesting discussions from my point of view was whether society “can do maths”.

During my early career I trained and qualified as an accountant. When I meet people, we generally end up talking about what you have done. As soon as they hear I studied and qualified as an accountant, I usually have the response “I can’t do maths”.

Can everyone do maths?

Well yes I believe we do. We work out our change when paying for items with cash at a till, we manage our bank account and decide the portion sizes when cooking meals. All relevant maths skills.

One example that I shared at the fringe event was when I used to manage apprentices in a local college. I would frequently be visiting hairdressing apprentices in their functional skills session, and listen to them quite clearly stating that they “can’t do maths” and yet, in a salon setting, they were able to assess the nature of their client’s hair, and decide the quite complex mixture of colours and peroxides to meet the client’s expectations for their new hairdo.

They were more than competent at working out the ratios of colour tints to developer and the percentage of peroxide needed to lift the colour for the client, but most surprising of all, was that they were blissfully unaware that these were maths skills that they were using.

Everyone can do basic maths, addition, subtraction, ratios, but when faced with the question of maths, people often remember the quadratic equations, and Pythagoras theory, which is not so readily used by everyone in everyday life but is still vitally important to the engineers of our future.

I believe that the Royal Society’s vision for the development of Science and Maths over the next 20 years is key. This should be embraced by whichever government is successful next May, and a course should be set to achieve those goals.

There is a significant skills gap that needs to be addressed and the Royal Society puts teaching at the heart of this development.

In order to develop this we need a strong teaching profession, with a good supply of maths and science teachers, recognised by the STEM community. We heard from an A level student, on the day, who clearly had a passion for maths and science, and had developed these from inspiring teachers.

I believe that good high quality Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is vital for people to join the teaching profession, and more importantly to continue their teaching careers. This CPD should not just be about Progress 8 measures, or Ofsted expectations, but teachers should have access to subject specific CPD, to refresh and update their knowledge and to keep young people inspired to continue to higher levels see the relevance of maths and science to future careers and enable UK plc to grow and retain a future workforce in STEM.

We have a range of mathematics specific professional development occurring, whether it is a one day course near you or one of the multi-day residential courses at the National Science Learning Centre in York.

Numeracy and Mathematics in the Science Classroom

Linking the Core Subjects: Mathematics, English and Science

New and Aspiring Leaders of Mathematics

Using Scratch to enhance the understanding of KS3 Maths

If you are interested in inspiring your young people to look at future STEM careers, but don’t know enough about what they could do, then register for our Teacher Industrial Partners Scheme (TIPS) to spend a fortnight working with local industry to understand what they need from today’s young people tomorrow.

Teachers, STEM and good news!

by Yvonne Baker

Last week, a Good University guide supplement to The Times newspaper declared there has been a “surge in the uptake of STEM subjects” in Good University Guide screenshotEnglish Universities as young people, and their parents, become more aware of the potential of such degrees. This is good news and should be celebrated. However, curiously, one thing the feature omitted to mention, among the various STEM activities in which young people can now participate, is the fundamental role and influence of their teachers. To misquote Lady Bracknell, this is both careless and unfortunate.

The much quoted McKinsey survey of 2007, along with reports such as PISA, TIMMS and TALIS, demonstrate time and time again that the quality of an education system depends on the quality of the teaching and teachers within it. Thus, activities to encourage and promote STEM need to include teachers and teaching, not just young people; what some might term a ‘whole system approach’.

This is supported by evidence from programmes such as the National Science Learning Centre which does just that, developing the skills and knowledge of ‘where STEM can take you’ for young people through supporting their teachers, so maximising the ‘return on investment’ made in STEM support. Indeed, the large scale EU funded Ingenious project, which has worked with teachers and students across 20 European countries over three years, shows clearly that, whilst events and activities can stimulate young people’s interest and engagement in STEM, the effect is increased and maximised when their teachers receive appropriate development too. Where teachers benefited from high quality, subject-specific professional development activities, they developed both the confidence and the skills to ‘embed’ STEM contexts, examples, and career across the curriculum and beyond. This, the study found, amplifies the impacts on achievement, aspiration and engagement that young people’s involvement in activities can have.

Another finding of the Ingenious project – and our experience in the UK – is that getting this support to enough teachers and young people to make a difference is hugely assisted when appropriate national infrastructures are in place. By this, we mean organisations skilled in helping schools, teachers, employers, scientific societies etc to locate each other and identify the most appropriate ways to work together. Surprisingly, relatively few countries have anything in place in this regard.

In The Netherlands, Platform Beta Techniek – financially supported by the Dutch Government – works to proactively engage STEM employers and schools, with significant positive results. Denmark is now developing a ‘national platform’ following the Dutch model.

The challenge is scaling a support infrastructure up to a country with many thousands of schools such as the UK, Germany or France. What may be surprising is that the UK – with around 30,000 schools in total – is leading the way. A significant infrastructure has been in place for around 10 years now, funded by a coalition of government, charitable trusts and STEM employers. The core consists of four major ‘enabling programmes’ – the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) providing professional development for teachers of mathematics; the National Science Learning Centre and Science Learning Network providing professional development for all other teachers of STEM; National STEM Centre providing access to quality assured teaching resources, and the STEM Ambassadors facilitating contact between schools and many thousands of excellent STEM role models. Alongside this run a wide range of excellent STEM schemes for young people, including the BSA CREST Awards, Tomorrow’s Engineer and the Royal Institution Young Scientists’ Centre.

Together – and with the assistance of too many people to mention – this has, as the Times supplement shows, reversed the downward trend in students pursuing STEM subjects post-16, with mathematics now the most popular subject at A level in England. I bet many would be surprised by that.

However, despite this welcome news, challenges remain. Interesting young people in pursuing STEM – either in terms of studies or careers – is a truly international issue, as shown by the recent EU/Intel “Skills Mismatch” report, or the Relevance of Science Education (ROSE) study from the University of Oslo. In the UK, we have a particularly stubborn issue in terms of female students studying engineering, and entering the engineering profession – I was always the first female engineer on any site I worked at in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and the situation has not moved that much since!

Perhaps the greatest challenge, however, is for those who support these infrastructures; encouraging them to sustain funding and other support for the real long-term, not moving on to another ‘great idea’ in the never-ending quest for a better mousetrap or the elusive golden bullet. Obviously, we need to continually develop and move on – but the structures we have in place are working, as the HE figures demonstrate, and we need to build on these, not risk going backwards or starting again. And this is not a problem confined to the UK – as Marc Durando, Executive Director of European Schoolsnet said repeatedly last week at the Ingenious conference, ‘let’s start backing what works’, and then even more young people will get, through STEM, the opportunities they deserve.


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