Education & Family

School science: Lack of kit 'means pupils miss out'

Science experiment lesson
Image caption Schools reported shortages of basic experimental equipment such as goggles and beakers

Pupils at many state-funded schools in England are missing out on practical science experiments because of a lack of basic equipment, a report suggests.

A survey of 845 schools by the group Science Community Representing Education highlights "acute" shortages.

On average, secondary schools have 70% of the necessary equipment and primaries just 46%, it suggests.

The Department for Education commented that schools were responsible for deciding how to manage their budgets.

Prof Julia Buckingham, of Science Community Representing Education (Score), said: "Practical science is a low priority when it comes to allocating budgets."

The survey found that levels of resourcing were poorest for biology, with 37% of secondary schools reporting too little equipment for effective practical work.

Almost half said they lacked sufficient ecological sampling equipment such as beakers and nets and more than 60% said they didn't have enough items such as thermometers or blood pressure meters to measure changes in the body.

Teachers funding purchases

In chemistry, some 60% of secondary schools reported too few pH monitors for the study of acids and alkalis.

In physics, 40% of schools and sixth-form colleges lacked enough magnets even for pupils to work in pairs.

Schools also reported shortages of microscopes, eye protection and connecting leads for circuits.

Some 70% of secondary and 37% of primary teachers said they regularly paid for practical science equipment out of their own pockets - "with very few expecting to be reimbursed", says the report.

It raises concerns "that over 80% of state-funded schools do not formally allocate part of the science budget specifically for practical work".

Money spent on photocopying

A representative group of 448 secondary and 397 primary schools were polled on their practical science spending for 2011-12.

In state secondary schools, funding varied from 75p per student to £31.25. The highest-spending independent school put £83.21 per student into practical science. The lowest-spending state primary allocated just 4p.

The report also found that an average of 28% of the practical science budget was spent on photocopying.

School laboratories were inadequate in a fifth of state secondary schools, according to the report, with "insufficient bench space, a lack of access to fume cupboards... and insufficient space to run and store long-term experiments".

Some 60% of secondary schools said they did not have access to a pond for ecology sampling.

'Source of frustration'

Prof Buckingham said: "Low resourcing for practical work is a long-term problem and not one that is a simple matter of lack of government funding.

"Schools must share part of the responsibility for allocating funding for this important aspect of science learning."

She called for school leaders to use a set of benchmarks developed by Score that outline minimum quantities and standards for equipment and facilities.

"We need to ensure that all pupils are exposed to the excitement and increased understanding of science that carrying out practical work can bring."

Marianne Cutler, of the Association for Science Education, said the issues highlighted in the report were a source of frustration for many teachers.

"At primary level, in particular, the frustration is that the equipment list is pretty basic and inexpensive. There is no excuse for schools not to have sufficient supplies of objects like batteries, stopwatches and magnets."

'Vital for future prosperity'

Russell Hobby, of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that practical science skills were vital for an understanding of scientific method and for many technical careers, adding: "It is not just lack of equipment, however, that stands in the way, but lack of time in a crowded but narrow curriculum."

Malcolm Trobe, of the Association of School and College Leaders, agreed there were "major issues with resourcing in some areas" but cautioned that "benchmarking levels can only be reached if funding to schools and colleges is sufficient".

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "Score is right that practical work is essential for high-quality science teaching. The best schools teach science as a practical as well as a theoretical subject.

"It is of course down to schools to decide how best to manage their budgets so that pupils get the best possible education, but we are clear of the importance of science as a subject vital for our future prosperity.

"That is why it is a compulsory subject in schools and we are raising its importance. Practical work is prioritised in our new curriculum."

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