Required Practicals in GCSE and A Level Sciences

Required Practicals in GCSE and A-level Sciences

Just ahead of Year 11 mock week, I find myself explaining the outline of the Science GCSE course that they are studying and the assessments that they are set to face. Then as I take a beat I find myself asking the class: What exactly is Science? 

For me, Science isn’t just a subject. It is a way of life; it is having an inquisitive mind about the world coupled with using data to better understand life the universe and everything! This means that practical investigations are at the heart of the subject of Science and vital in the school curriculum.

Both the GCSE and A-level Science specifications were reformed in 2016 and 2015 respectively after a consultation period. The assessment of these courses moved from having controlled assessment and examination to being terminal examinations only. It was hoped that this change would remove the narrow focus on time consuming repetitive practicals and give students more of a range of practical experience. 

For GCSE, OFQUAL identified 8 practical per single science GCSE and 16 practicals that all combined science candidates must have experience of in the GCSE Sciences, across all the English examination boards. These practicals were designed to give candidates a number of key skills and experiences in the laboratory setting with at least 15% of their written examinations testing this aspect of their learning. In addition, the experiments were likely to be familiar with science teachers and much of the equipment already available in a school setting.

In A-level, candidates also had required practicals and these too are assessed in the written exam papers. However, candidates could complete the course and get a just a grade, or keep a laboratory note book that is Common Practical Assessment Criteria (CPAC) assessed by teachers and gain practical endorsement alongside their A-level grade.

According to Gatsby Charitable Foundation, practical science is important for learning, not only because doing experiments is a good way to learn scientific ideas and theories. They go on to say that practical work engages students to follow science further, on academic or technical routes, and gives them practical skills and attitudes that will be valuable in their future careers. But the pandemic has made it really difficult to complete hands on science in a Covid-19 secure manner. This has led to students losing some of their confidence in practical investigations as well as students missing out on the practical experiences all together.

There are some changes for the 2022 exam series that have already been published:

  • Practical work can be delivered by demonstration. This could be the teacher showing students from the front of the room, or completing the practical using a visualiser to allow everyone to see more easily.  However, this can also incorporate asynchronous delivery such as watching a video of the required practical. has some fabulous Primrose Kitten Videos about the Required Practicals.
  • Practical work can be delivered virtually using simulations. This could be done with free online simulations like which could be used to investigate the effect of limiting factors on the rate of photosynthesis.
  • Although field trips are still being encouraged they are not mandatory at the moment. The pandemic has opened up the opportunity to remote learning and interactive lessons where you can link with others around the world. Many are available free of charge and a good place to start is
  • Exam boards can carry out remote monitoring of centres’ application of the CPAC. It is still important that any teacher that will be carrying out CPAC assessment completes their training with the appropriate exam board see

My aim, to, keep the spark alive where I can, allowing my students to investigate and discover science practically if possible and if not, harness the power of IT to have a practical spin on the theory.

Required Practicals in GCSE and A-level Sciences by Sam Holyman

Sam Holyman is Second in Science at Aylesford School in Warwick, and formerly West Midlands ASE President. She is also the author of a number of best-selling science textbooks for KS3 and GCSE (including the AQA GCSE Foundation: Combined Science Trilogy and Entry Level Certificate Student Book), and a keen advocate of innovative teaching and learning.

Sam was nominated in the Teacher Scientist category for the Science Council’s 100 leading practising scientists, is a Chartered Science Teacher, and has recently been awarded the Lead Facilitator CPD Quality mark.

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