CPAC Monitoring Visits: My Experience as an AQA Practical Adviser

In September 2016, I joined the AQA team as a Practical Adviser, which means that I travelled around schools in the North of England supporting schools as they navigate through the required practical system for A Level. These CPAC monitoring visits led to an inspiring conversation with Catherine Witter – the Lead Practical Adviser for AQA. We shared similar beliefs about practical work in science and are both passionate about the role that practical work takes in developing important problem-solving skills and resilience in young people.

I’ve learned so much more about the process and I’d like to share my findings with you in this blog post below.

AQA Practical Adviser: Job Description

My role is to visit schools and offer support and guidance for those who teach A Level Physics for AQA. This means that I get to:

  • Observe practical activity taking place;
  • Review the documents in each school, that track progress through the practical element of the course;
  • Review student lab books;
  • Talk with staff and pupils.

It has been brilliant and I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting so many committed physics teachers.

From working with AQA, I’ve realised what’s really important throughout the practical endorsement process. I’ve learned so much.Sally Weatherly

Here’s What I’ve Learned:

I have learned quite a lot from these visits and I thought it would be great to share some of the main points with you:

1. Routinely and Consistently

Every one of the 5 competencies should be assessed routinely and consistently throughout the whole course.

There’s no magic number on how many times a student should pass each competency. For example, you can’t say that they have met each CPAC competency three times – therefore they’ve passed the practical endorsement. It’s not quite as simple as that.

Ultimately, this means that when your students complete the A Level physics course, you should be comfortable that they could carry out every aspect of a practical correctly on their own.

Are you comfortable that your student could routinely and consistently carry out a practical correctly in your absence?

It is this independence that the exam boards are striving for when awarding a “pass” of the practical element of the course.

2. CPAC 2 – Identifying Variables

The AQA syllabus gives a list of practical skills to be assessed in written papers.

One of the skills included is:

Identify variables including those that must be controlled

My feeling is that tackling this in a written exam will be much easier if it is routine in their practical work.

For this reason I have always asked students to explicitly identify the “independent”, “dependent” and “control” variables in any experiment.

I use the example of Core Practical 1 below:

Core Practical 1
Investigation into the variation of the frequency of stationary waves on a string with length of the string.


I ask the student to record the variables as follows:

Independent variable:

Length of String (in cm)

Dependent Variable:

Fundamental Frequency of String (in Hz)

Control Variables:

  • Tension in the string (in N)
  • Diameter of the string (in mm)
  • Mass per unit metre of the string (in kg/m)
  • Temperature of the string (in K)

I think that explicitly writing them downs encourages students to consider their method more carefully, as it forces them to think how each of the variables will be measured and controlled.

3. CPAC 5 (b) – Ideas for Earlier Inclusion

CPAC 5 (Research and Referencing) is often considered to be a little harder to include at the start of the course. However, there are great strategies to incorporate CPAC 5 earlier in Year 12. Here are a few ideas:

  • Ask your students to investigate the universally accepted value of “g” on the Earth’s surface. A short account of how it varies at various heights above the Earth’s surface would be interesting too. Make sure they include the full URL address and the date and time accessed – so it could be accessed again, if necessary.

  • Young Modulus

    Students could research two different methods of determining the Young Modulus of a long, thin wire. Using their findings, they could develop a method to carry out the experiment. Their findings should include which instruments to use to take the necessary measurements. There is no formal requirement to use the Harvard system of referencing for this competency.

  • Resistivity of a Nichrome Wire

    Ask your students to investigate the value of resistivity of nichrome. A short account of how it varies temperature would be interesting too. The student can use this value to compare against their own experimental value. Make sure they include the full URL address and the date and time accessed – so it could be accessed again, if necessary.

  • Absorption of Gamma Radiation

    Ask your students to research the safe procedures for handling and experimenting with gamma radiation. You could direct them to CLEAPPS. They could also write a formal risk assessment for this experiment, which would incorporate CPAC 3 too.

4. CPAC 5(b) – Referencing Systems

All secondary data has to be referenced appropriately. However, the Harvard System is not required. Students might find the Vancouver System more appropriate.

Here’s how each of these systems works:

The student should refer to the secondary data within the text using the following notation:

… text (author[s], year) text…

The student should cite the reference in the list of references at the end of the practical with:

Author[s] (date). Title of the Book. Publisher. 

References should be listed in alphabetical order, according to the authors.

The student should refer to the secondary data within the text using the following notation:

… text [numbered reference – 1, 2, 3, etc] text…

The student should cite the reference in the list of references at the end of the practical with:

  1. Author(s). Title of the Book. Publisher: Date.

References should be listed in the order of which they are used.

5. Monitoring Visits are Genuine in Offer of Support

Catherine and her team have worked extremely hard to ensure that the AQA Practical Advisers are trained to support in all aspects of the monitoring visits to school.

There is a genuine feeling that the core aim of these visits is to support teachers in this new system.

I spent a sunny Saturday in London at a training event for this role and I was overwhelmed by the dedication and enthusiasm these people have for practical work.

I personally believe that the new approach to teaching practical work has improved A level physics and has encouraged more practical into everyday teaching. It is less stressful than the old ISAs and much more flexible.

I have been delighted to have been a part of the AQA team on this. (and they haven’t asked me to write that!!!)

About the Author

Sally Weatherly

Sally is the Guzled founder and, more importantly, a physics teacher. She led a large and vibrant department for 7 years, after training to teach in London. She is an IB Physics textbook author, Fellow of the IoP, Entrepreneur, Advisor for the AQA, Trustee for Dynamic Earth and an IoP Teacher Network Co-ordinator.