Q4. How many science lessons include practical work?

Why this is important

  • Practical work in science increases engagement and interest of students. It can also increase their interest in science-related careers. Ofsted’s report, ‘Maintaining Curiosity’, lists practical science as one of the most effective approaches to stimulate interest in science, and in turn raise achievement.
  • Practical science helps students develop a range of skills, scientific knowledge and understanding, including those that generalise to other subjects and beyond academic learning (e.g. communication, team work etc).
  • Practical science will provide the students who wish to pursue science-related subjects further with vital skills. Universities18 and employers19 increasingly complain about the poor practical skills of their new entrants.


  • A level students are not externally assessed on their practical skills, but will be expected to carry out at least 12 practicals during the two year course. They will also have the optoon of taking an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) – an independent research project which is approximately equivalent to an AS level and gives students the opportunity to conduct their own research project in a subject of their choice. If done in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject, it can help students develop and improve their investigative and practical skills.
  • From September 2016, GCSE students are no longer externally assessed on their practical skills, but will be expected to carry out at least eight practicals for each triple science subject or 16 for science and additional science.
  • The number of practicals required vary by exam board and should be seen as a minimum to be incorporated into everyday teaching.
  • Benchmarks have been provided from PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment which compares educational standards in different countries.

A 2016 nationally representative survey of Key Stage 4 students in England found:

  • 45% reported doing hands-on practical work in science lessons at least once a forthnight
  • 58% said they wanted to do more practical work in science lessons
  • 22% did not fully understand the practical work they were doing or its purpose

Ideas for improvement

You can ask how much practical science your school is undertaking and the plan for incorporating it into lessons. If you think your school is not doing enough practical science, you could ask the following questons of the senior leadership team:

  • How much practical science would teachers like to offer and how much are they offering?
  • Are teachers well supported by laboratory technicians and equipment? If not, how can these be funded in future budgets and strategic plans?
  • Is science taught in properly equipped classrooms?
  • Are teachers confident about doing experiments? Are teachers able to access professional development to improve their practical skills?
  • Extended Project Qualifications can help develop pupil’s investigative and practical skills. You may want to ask what provision your school makes for EPQs in STEM subjects. STEM Learning has an EPQ support group for more information and advice.

You may wish to share the following information with your school’s science leaders:

  • CLEAPSS is a membership organisation which offers support for practical science and technology, with helpful guidelines and resources.
  • The Institute of Physics, Society of Biology and Royal Society of Chemistry have created a series of websites where you can find free ideas and resources:
  • The Association for Science Education provides a wide range of resources through its open access website, www.schoolscience.co.uk, as well as links to other partner organisations through the ASE website.
  • STEM Learning’s eLibrary includes over 7,000 teaching resources, and has grouped those that relate to practical work together for each of the separate sciences.

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