Friday 18 October 2019

'Not enough teachers or money' to roll out science practicals in our schools

Testing times: Fitting science practicals into a sixth-year timetable, which already, in the months between Christmas and June, includes the ‘mocks’ and other orals and practicals is a big challenge. Stock picture
Testing times: Fitting science practicals into a sixth-year timetable, which already, in the months between Christmas and June, includes the ‘mocks’ and other orals and practicals is a big challenge. Stock picture
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Irish schools cannot cope with the introduction of long-awaited Leaving Cert science practicals without massive investment and a shake-up in the entire exam process, according to a new report.

The unpublished State Examinations Commission (SEC) report paints a picture of a Leaving Cert examinations system at a critical crossroads.

At the very least, the report calls for a "major review" of the organisation of all orals and practicals for the State exams before anything else is imposed on an "already over-burdened system".

Ireland's reliance on written exams to test school-leavers' understanding of scientific concepts is out of step with international practice and practicals were first proposed as far back as 1982.

Finally, in 2016, the Department of Education approved a trialling of practicals in biology, chemistry and physics to be worth 30pc of the overall mark. The SEC conducted the trials in 30 schools over the past year.

Although the trials were deemed a success, the report blows out of the water any hopes of a national roll-out in the short term.

There were hopes that practicals would be a feature of assessment for fifth years starting next September, the first cohort to complete the new and more hands-on science syllabus at junior cycle.

However, the report points to the logistical and financial challenges involved in delivering the second mode of assessment across more than 700 schools and bluntly states "it could not be recommended" at this time.

Key challenges identified in the Report on the Trialling of the Assessment of Practical Work in Leaving Certificate biology, chemistry and physics include:

:: Finding space in the already loaded sixth-year timetable, on top of the Leaving Cert 'mocks' and existing orals and practicals;

:: Science teacher shortages, making it difficult for schools to release staff to act as external examiners and also to provide necessary back-up when practicals are happening in their own school;

:: The cost of bringing all school science labs up to standard, which could run to hundreds of millions of euro.

The SEC put a figure of about €3m annually on running the exams, but it said consideration would have to be given to whether all schools had the laboratories and equipment necessary to facilitate holding such exams.

An audit of school laboratories in 2002 found that an investment of €142m would be needed to bring them up to world-class standards.

While there is no more recent national picture of such facilities, school labs were not the priority of the department's building programme during the austerity era.

According to the SEC: "It would not be safe to assume that laboratory facilities and equipment in schools are currently of a sufficient standard to support a rollout of this model of practical assessment without further investment, the scale of which remains to be determined."

However, it adds that the financial cost of actually carrying out the assessments "is in many ways the least of the challenges" that need to be considered ahead of a decision, even in principle, to go ahead with science practicals.

A significant concern is "the capacity to deliver a full roll-out along the lines of existing models of delivery of oral and practical exams, which are already under considerable stress".

The report states that "looming large among those concerns is that of examiner supply", a reference to difficulties in recruiting teachers to act as external examiners for orals and practicals in another school.

According to the SEC, it would be even more challenging for science because, as well as the challenge of recruiting external examiners, there is also a need for a science teacher from the school where the practical is being held to be available for preparation and back-up. Schools are also struggling with a shortage of science teachers.

The other big issue is fitting science practicals into the sixth-year timetable, which already, in the months between Christmas and June, includes the 'mocks' and other orals and practicals.

"It would seem unwise to seek to simply drop the proposed model on top of an already overly burdened system, without considering other options," says the report.

Irish Independent

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