Practical science in decline despite appetite from pupils

Access to hands-on practical science for GCSE pupils has almost halved, according to a recent survey from the Royal Society. The latest Science Education Tracker (SET) survey found that the proportion of Year 10 and 11 pupils undertaking hands-on practical work at least fortnightly dropped from 44 per cent in 2016 to 26 per cent in 2023. 

The 2023 SET was commissioned by the Royal Society in partnership with EngineeringUK, with support from Wellcome. More than 7,000 students between years 7 and 13 in state-funded schools and colleges in England were surveyed between July and September 2023. The first iteration of the SET was run by Wellcome in 2016 and repeated in 2019.

The latest SET suggests that videos are increasingly replacing practical work, with 46 per cent of GCSE pupils surveyed saying they watched a video of a practical at least fortnightly, compared to 39 per cent in 2016. On the increasing use of videos of practicals, the report of the survey results says: ‘While it is possible that these changes are symptomatic of a longer–term shift towards using digital technology as a replacement for hands–on work, it is likely that the pandemic has accelerated any such shifts and could mean that digital teaching practices introduced during lockdowns have now become more embedded.’

The survey found that doing practical science is a key incentive to learn science for students in years 7–9, with 52 per cent choosing this as a motivating factor. Other encouragement factors included having a good teacher, finding science interesting, and relevance of science to real life. However, only around two fifths (42 per cent) of respondents in years 7 to 13 considered an understanding of science as important to their everyday life.

Among all pupils surveyed, 71 per cent would like to do more practical work in science. Appetite for more practical work is higher among groups with lower levels of engagement in science, including students who are not interested in science or who see science as ‘not for me’. The ‘not for me’ group is most likely to include girls, and students with a white or mixed ethnicity, and makes up 32 per cent of young people surveyed in years 7–13.

Speaking about the survey results, Professor Ulrike Tillmann FRS, chair of the Royal Society’s education committee, said: ‘Access to effective hands-on learning that students can tangibly connect to the real world will help make science feel more relevant and meaningful and provide valuable skills for life and work. The present situation means many young people may emerge from school without a sound appreciation of scientific methods, which are crucial for understanding how science works and being able to engage with scientific issues.’

Sarah Hannafin, head of policy at school leaders’ union NAHT, commented: ‘In part, this decline in students having the opportunity to take part in experiments may be due to shortages of specialist science teachers or technicians at a time when schools are facing a severe recruitment and retention crisis. But it may also reflect government reforms which saw a new approach of assessing practical work using written exam questions rather than through controlled assessment. Ofqual set the number of practical activities exam boards must require students to complete at no lower than eight in individual sciences and 16 for combined science - but other content was increased to take up the slack, meaning schools may struggle to find time within the packed curriculum to go beyond the minimum. This appears to be another example of the government’s obsession with elevating written exams above all else, which NAHT has long argued against, and which does not always fairly reflect the ability of all students.’

Full survey report:


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