When the new curriculum was introduced three or four years ago, there was an outcry when it was announced that the ‘practical exam’ was being dropped. At the time, the media fed us a frenzy half truths, suggesting that practical skills were no longer important in science. While I am happy to lament the lack of practical experiences in the lower school, (after all, teaching science without practicals is akin to teaching food tech without cooking) once we reach A Level, I quite like the new system.
To explain, the syllabus is made up of a series of core scientific skills that students have to be able to demonstrate. Over the two years, these are written up in a ‘lab-book’ so that there is written evidence that the students have been able to demonstrate these skills. These books are assessed by the schools themselves, but my understanding is that the examination boards have the right to ask for these books as proof that the experimental work is actually being carried out. The schools have a certain degree of choice of practical work undertaken, so there is less need for large investment in expensive equipment that will sit on shelves gathering dust. If 120 children sit the same exam on the same day at the same time – someone has to provide 120 sets of laboratory kit, plus extra for the inevitable breakages.
However, with experiments undertaken and lab-books prepared, that is not the end of it. The written exams will test the practical skills as well. Students may be asked to design an experiment very similar to one they have already undertaken, or they may be given an experiment and be asked to comment how it could be changed to make the results more accurate, or how the equipment could be changed to make the outcome more precise.
So, the PAGs (as the practical assessments are referred to) really are important, and when students ask how they can work to improve their grades, my advice is to learn those PAGs inside out. At least one, if not several, will feature in those written exams.