Sir John Holman

Sir John Holman is senior education advisor to the Gatsby Foundation. He is Chair of Trustees of Teacher Development Trust and a former headteacher and science teacher.

In a nation already suffering a STEM skills shortage, we cannot afford to ignore the benefits of high-quality practical science in schools.  Experimentation gives science its identity, and the appeal of practical science is the reason many scientists, technicians and engineers chose their career path. Science uses experiments to discover the realities of the world, and this practical approach is as intrinsic to young learners as it is to professional researchers.

For these reasons, and many more, I was pleased to lead the Gatsby Foundation’s new report, Good Practical Science, providing benchmarks and recommendations to outline how all secondary schools in England can achieve world-class science education.

This was one of the most interesting pieces of research I have ever undertaken. We were able to collect evidence about practical science from 11 leading education nations, and to visit schools, teachers and pupils in six of them, including Finland, Singapore and Germany. We also collected evidence from 400 English schools, while PwC reviewed the financial side of our recommendations.

What is the purpose of practical science in schools?

What is it about science that captivates the imagination of young people? For some people, it’s the excitement of new ideas, but for many it’s about their experiences of hands-on experimentation and practical work in the science lab.

For the wider education system, our report identifies five purposes of practical science in secondary schools:

  1. To teach the principles of scientific inquiry
  2. To improve understanding of theory through practical experience
  3. To teach specific practical skills, such as measurement and observation, that may be useful in future study or employment
  4. To motivate and engage students
  5. To develop higher level skills and attributes such as communication, teamwork and perseverance

10 benchmarks for Good Practical Science

The ten benchmarks for effective practical science education are identified as:

  1. Planned practical science
  2. Purposeful practical science
  3. Expert teachers
  4. Frequent and varied practical science
  5. Laboratory facilities and equipment
  6. Technical support
  7. Real experiments, virtual enhancements
  8. Investigative projects
  9. A balanced approach to risk
  10. Assessment fit for purpose

Meeting all the criteria for all the benchmarks presented by Good Practical Science will be demanding. By international standards, schools in England are relatively well-provided for in terms of science labs, but our school survey confirms that many schools in England are falling short of achieving world-class practical science measured by our benchmarks.

I want to explore just three of the key benchmarks, to highlight how schools can take simple and immediate steps towards improving their delivery of practical science.

Benchmark 3: Expert teachers

As ever, teachers are the key. Ideally teachers will have subject-specialist training on an initial and continuous basis in their teaching subject and age range. This allows them to carry out practical science with confidence and knowledge of the underlying principles, something that was strongly underlined in the teachers we met in countries such as Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Singapore.

  • At post-16 level, teachers should have a post-A level science qualification relating to the science subject they teach, together with relevant pedagogical training.
  • At pre-16 level, teachers without the relevant post-A level science qualification should be offered sufficient training to provide the confidence, knowledge and skills they require.
  • Science departments should be reviewing their teachers’ expertise annually, ensuring individual needs are met. This should include specific training in practical science.

Of course, for many schools recruiting specialist teachers, especially in physics and chemistry, seems an impossibility.  But we are saying that schools should take a strategic approach to building a specialist science team, using professional development where necessary to give non-specialist teachers the knowledge and teaching skills they need to use practical science with confidence.

Benchmark 4: Frequent and varied practical science

The report recommends that students should experience a practical activity in at least half of their science lessons. These activities can be short or long, but should be varied in type.

  • Across the school year and all science subjects, on average at least half of all lessons should involve direct practical activities, whether hands-on for pupils or teacher demonstrations. ‘Half’ does not mean that half  the total time spent on science should be practical work, but that half of the lessons should feature some kind of practical activity, short or long.
  • The school timetable should provide enough long science lessons of at least 50 minutes to give teachers the flexibility they need to run experiments.
  • Our investigation found a wide variety of successful practical science activities. Some of the most effective activities were very short, but we also saw extended projects that took weeks rather than days. There is no single, best type of practical activity: the important thing is for teachers and students to understand why they are doing it and how the learning can be consolidated.

Benchmark 6: Technical support

The report found that the majority of science departments in England have enough technical or technician support to enable teachers to carry out frequent and effective practical science.

  • Technical support saves teachers time and improves science department morale.
  • For an average-size school, there should be specialist technical expertise to support practical work in each of biology, chemistry and physics.
  • Technicians should be given regular opportunities for continued professional development.

Impactful education research

In short, where science education is good, practical science is also good: well-planned, frequent and varied. Most of the ingredients for good practical science are the ingredients for good science teaching in general.

Education research in science has its greatest impact when teachers and technicians work together to identify the best strategies for effective educational outcomes. I hope that’s what will happen with Good Practical Science.


A key ambition of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation is to strengthen intermediate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills within the UK workforce.

Download the full Good Practical Science report and appendices at: