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Practical science Leaving Cert ruled out over cost and crowded school curriculum


Joe McHugh: Exploring course-work assessments for science subjects. Photo: Frank McGrath

Joe McHugh: Exploring course-work assessments for science subjects. Photo: Frank McGrath

Joe McHugh: Exploring course-work assessments for science subjects. Photo: Frank McGrath

Education Minister Joe McHugh is abandoning the idea of long-awaited Leaving Cert science practicals because of the logistical and financial challenges involved.

Instead, he has asked the curriculum advisory body to explore the option of a coursework assessment - such as a project - in biology, chemistry and physics, similar to what happens in some other subjects.

Students would complete the coursework during the school year, under the guidance of teachers, and it would be marked by an examiner appointed by the State Examinations Commission (SEC).

It is a far cry from a carefully observed, 90-minute test of practical skills, but Mr McHugh said "it should allow for assessment of enquiry based learning, critical thinking and elements of experimental investigation".

The minister's announcement follows the publication in the Irish Independent of the findings of a practicals trial conducted by the SEC in 30 schools last year.

The trials were deemed a success, but the SEC argued strongly against a national roll-out now because of an already crowded sixth year timetable, difficulties recruiting examiners and the need to bring school science labs up to scratch which, while unquantified, could run to hundreds of millions of euro.

The report argued against imposing science practicals on an already over-burdened system without a major review of the organisation of existing orals and practicals.

It is 36 years since science practicals were first mooted, as a way of testing students' application of their knowledge and skills, while also reducing reliance on the written June exams.

There was an expectation that the trials would lead to the introduction of practicals in the next couple of years, to coincide with the first cohort of students completing the new, more hands-on junior cycle science syllabus and progressing to Leaving Cert.

A spokesperson for Mr McHugh said the Department of Education was keen that Leaving Cert science subjects should incorporate a second assessment component to allow a broader assessment of students' skills.

But he added that, after considering the SEC report, the minister was asking the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) to examine the feasibility of integrating coursework assessment into each of the three subjects.

The SEC report touched on the option of coursework assessments, many of which they described as highly valued, but added that they "lack the element of direct assessment by observation of students' practical skills".

The science practicals issue is likely to be explored as part of the wider review of senior cycle currently being undertaken by the NCCA.

One of the main advocates of practical assessments in Leaving Cert science subjects is the employers' organisation Ibec,

Ibec's senior executive for innovation and education policy, Claire McGee, said while they welcomed the move to explore integrated coursework assessment, practicals were the preferred option as a second assessment component.

Ms McGee said learning through experience played a huge role in encouraging students to take part in subjects.

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