Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS)


  We welcome this opportunity to submit evidence to the Science and Technology Committee's Inquiry into Science Education (14-19). In producing this submission we recognise that the remit of the Committee is to look at science education in a broader sense. We will, however, focus on those areas of the curriculum that deal with plants.


  SAPS makes the following recommendations:

    1.  the place of plant science in the science curriculum must be examined urgently;

    2.  plants should be used more widely to teach basic biological principles;

    3.  the curriculum should be shaped in such a way as to allow more opportunities for challenging practical work using plant materials thereby providing hands-on experience of working with plants;

    4.  fieldwork should, wherever possible, be encouraged in the post-16 curriculum as a means of gaining first hand experience of plants and an understanding of plant biodiversity and whole organisms in context;

    5.  the quality of plant science material in textbooks and other resources must be reviewed critically both for its accuracy and its appeal to students;

    6.  leading plant scientists with an up-to-date knowledge of plant processes should be involved in curriculum design and preparation of syllabuses;

    7.  teachers should be given regular and frequent opportunities to update their skills and expertise in plant science, including a knowledge of current applications, through programmes of continuing professional development.


  SAPS is a national programme. In the time since it was formed in 1990, SAPS has become one of the most influential organisations in science education. A recent survey (1999) of schoolteachers, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and conducted by Harris Research, found that SAPS was rated as having the highest impact, in terms of curriculum enhancement, amongst a range of scientific organisations.

  Through its various activities, SAPS aims to:

    —  develop new educational resources;

    —  promote exciting teaching of plant science and molecular biology;

    —  interest young people in plants and in molecular biology.

  Further information about SAPS is presented in Appendix 1[73].


  There is growing anecdotal evidence of a lack of interest in, and understanding of, plants among young people. This is most marked in secondary education, particularly among pupils studying for national examinations. Plant science is perceived to have only a minor role in the biology curriculum, and is frequently poorly taught and regarded as not interesting (Van Rooy, 2002). This results in cohorts of students poorly informed on issues that require an understanding of plant biology (food supply, biodiversity, environmental matters, genetically modified organisms, climate change, etc). It also adversely impacts on the numbers of students taking plant science courses at university, and on the numbers of students carrying on to do research degrees in plant sciences. We are failing to train sufficient numbers of plant scientists for the future.

  The following submission raises key questions concerning plant science education. Wherever possible, we have provided answers, but realise that for many questions the answers are currently not available. However, we believe the questions should be urgently addressed by the appropriate authorities, stimulated by the views of the Select Committee.

  4.1  There is great potential for national wealth creation provided that we maintain a plant science base in the UK. In order for this to become reality, it is imperative that our education system delivers two things:

    —  a public that understands plants and plant science in a way that helps them to make sensible, informed decisions;

    —  a supply of high quality plant scientists.

  The current 14-19 curriculum does not allow sufficient opportunities for either target to be achieved. It is also essential that the curriculum provides insight into the applications of plant science and the potential implications for society.

  4.2  Advances in molecular plant sciences are opening up extensive opportunities in many areas including agriculture, horticulture, medicine (eg vaccine production by plants), food production, alternative fuel and polymer sources. In order for the UK to maintain its global position in these areas it is vital that the curriculum enables people to develop appropriate underpinning knowledge and expertise in plant science.

  4.3  If the UK community opts to reject work on GM crops and decides that the UK should favour the "organic route", then new generations of plant scientists will be needed to carry out basic research as we strive to increase both food quality and harvest yields whilst reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. There is a trend for plant biotechnology companies to withdraw from the UK and there is no longer a major British-owned company of this sort. With the current uncertainty over the position of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, there is little incentive for multinational companies to invest in the UK.

  4.4  It is becoming increasingly clear that, among students choosing bioscience programmes, the study of plants is losing out to other areas of biology. Fewer undergraduates are choosing plant science options and as a result some universities have ceased, or will cease, to offer these.

  4.5  When questioned about their lack of interest in plants, undergraduates repeatedly blame their experience of plant science while at school and say that they carry forward this negative attitude to university.

  4.6  The trend in universities for students to turn away from plants reflects a similar attitude among teachers and their students in schools and colleges. This is reinforced because, among the intake to the teaching force, there are fewer and fewer graduates who have studied plants or have any specialist knowledge of plant science. The effect of this lack of specialist knowledge has been confirmed in recent studies (Kinchin, 2000) where it was shown that some of the misconceptions held by students about photosynthesis can be attributed to the quality of teaching.

  4.7  There are further concerns relating to the teaching of plant science in secondary education. Changes to the pre- and post-16 curriculum in recent years have resulted in an erosion of plant science topics and a noticeable bias towards animal topics, or human biology, rather than plants.

  There are fewer specific references to plant material in the latest (Curriculum 2000) AS and "A" level specifications (syllabuses), and what remains is often seen as isolated fragments that are difficult to make interesting and lack a coherence.

  The modular structure of A-level courses means that teachers and students can (and do) avoid plant topics where choice is available.

  4.8  The situation would be improved if plants and plant material could be integrated throughout the course when teaching basic biological concepts. Plants have the potential of being at least as interesting as animals and there are wonderful opportunities for students to do a huge range of interesting practical and investigative work without many of the restrictions that apply to similar work using animal material.

  4.9  Much of the experimental work with plants lends itself readily to assessment and could be incorporated in the examination system. There is abundant evidence from the SAPS website that, suitably guided by enthusiastic teachers, students can undertake challenging, hands-on project work with plant material.

  4.10  Fieldwork offers first hand experience of living organisms (plants and animals) and allows students to begin to appreciate how they interact, and to make genuine observations away from a more constrained classroom context. Such experience is of particular importance for society to understand environmental issues, including sustainability and biodiversity, and the role of plants in these areas. However, analysis of the specifications for A-level Biology in the new Curriculum 2000, reveals a reduced emphasis on ecological topics.

  4.11  The way in which plant topics are assessed in written examinations does not encourage students to develop an interest in plants. Indeed, responses by candidates to examination questions set on plant topics (and ecological or environmental topics) often reveal poor understanding, particularly when compared to their responses to equivalent animal topics. This may be the result of lack of interest (from the candidates) as well as poor teaching.

  At present, there is a large input from examination board officers and a small circle of examining personnel in the development of specifications (syllabuses) and the setting of examination papers. There is less opportunity than in the past to benefit from wider subject expertise, including that of practising plant scientists.

  There is also a greater emphasis for the examination boards to comply with the framework imposed by Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in order to gain their approval for the specifications and assessment schemes.

  4.12  In an environment in which the curriculum is so tightly prescribed, it is not surprising that publishers produce texts that merely cover syllabus content. These limitations in published resources tend to discourage students and teachers from exploring wider areas of biology and developing an interest in, and fascination for, plants.

  4.13  It is worth noting that the SAPS programme in Scotland has been extremely successful in influencing the post-16 curriculum because the system is much more receptive to curriculum initiatives of this type.

  4.14  An immediate priority must be to improve the quality of plant science teaching. This can be achieved by offering a programme of continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers. There is evidence (Council for Science and Technology, 2000) to suggest that CPD opportunities for teachers in the secondary sector rarely focus on subject specific skills (which teachers would prefer) but instead concentrate on whole school or national issues.

  The SAPS programme provides a framework that allows us to support teachers and students who wish to do more work on plants. Despite the quality of the CPD opportunities that SAPS offers teachers, one needs to recognise that the current curriculum straightjacket often precludes incorporation of these new skills into classroom practice.

  4.15  Here we wish to make a general point about the science curriculum as a whole. The science curriculum, pre- and post-16, is so densely packed and so frequently assessed that there is little opportunity for imaginative teachers to make use of their talents or for students to be adventurous. Teaching has become a much less attractive career for creative people. The tragedy is that it is those very people who capture the interest of students and so a key question that needs to be addressed is:

    "What can we do to make teaching, especially the teaching of science, attractive to lively, creative people who will enthuse young people so that they retain a lifelong interest in the subject?"

  We contend that a large part of the answer lies in improving:

    (i)  the structure of the curriculum;

    (ii)  its assessment; and

    (iii)  the supporting educational resources that allow its successful delivery.

February 2002

73   Not printed. Back

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