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Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know of my involvement with geology in a previous life. Does he agree that one of the great ways of exciting young people about the science of geology, and to get them to think about the planet on which they live, is to take them to some of the more exciting rock outcrops and show them some of the great fossil deposits? That cannot be done in a lab.

Dr. Gibson: I absolutely concur. Although there is great stuff on the media, such as the programmes made by the BBC unit in Bristol, that is not enough. There is
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nothing like seeing things for oneself and asking questions. That is what inspires, and makes people want to study science and get involved in some of the mysteries of life—because we definitely have not found out everything yet, and more ought to be done about it.

There are other factors that inhibit people from doing field trips. At key stage 2, participation in field work is rather sporadic and varying, and individual school commitment is often dependent on a specific member of staff; when that individual leaves the school there is a vacuum.

There is a need to bring back field work in biology. It is statutory in geography but only "recommended" for science. Very little field work is undertaken at key stage 3, despite the national strategy for science, and the situation is little better at key stage 4. The skills shortage of biologists with field work experience in schools will be perpetuated unless biologists themselves provide access to specialist field courses; I compliment organisations such as the Field Studies Council, which is doing that.

My figures say that the uptake of A-levels in biology and geography is falling nationally, and that there is difficulty in planning field courses because students will not commit themselves to A2 until they know their AS results. It is often easier not to teach ecology-based modules.

Funding has become a major issue. It is difficult when parents decline to contribute voluntarily, as is often asked of them. As a governor, I know about that—and of course, the poorer kids do not get encouragement from home, because of financial restrictions. School budgets are often too small to remedy deficits. When the money comes through from central Government to school budgets, often that money is not used for field courses, but is diverted into other pathways—worthwhile pathways, no doubt, but we miss out on that particular type of activity. Schools withdraw from making residential visits, and that means that inclusion and fair opportunity for all in education becomes a real issue.

There is also a lack of training to prepare teachers. This is an essential argument, I say to those weary willies who argue that health and safety is an issue. Risk management, and teachers going out of the classroom, is important both for initial teacher training, when people have the opportunity to study field sciences, and for serving teachers. There is a need for all key stage 2 teachers and all science specialists at key stage 3 and above to receive some training during ITT.

Serving teachers are doing a wonderful job in the classroom—but gosh, we could do a lot more in their training to make them want to get out there and see the world as it really is, to understand the patterns of life and impart them, and to instruct young people and give them the enthusiasm that takes them onwards. We have a history of academic field work in our education system; it is a learning mechanism and helps personal development. We want to ensure that quality can be delivered in an atmosphere of safety, allowing all pupils the opportunity, and the right, to such experience. I say that it should be for the many, not the few—a phrase that will be familiar to those who are present.

I do not think that the answer that I often get from my schools about sponsorship of the school pond by a local industry is enough. Of course, that is fine, but I want to
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see ring-fenced moneys to ensure that our young people are sent out there to look at things in a safe environment. In that way, we will solve many of the problems that everybody talks about, holding their hands up and saying, "Why don't young people want to do these interesting subjects?" If we do not give them the chance to go out, see things and ask the questions, and if we do not have a curriculum that encourages them to do so, is it any wonder?

11.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this important debate, which is also timely, considering that this subject has been under consideration by the Select Committee on Education and Skills.

Shortly before the summer recess, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out our Department's five-year strategy for children and learners. As part of that strategy, we place great emphasis on the challenge for every school to be an environmentally sustainable school with a good plan for school transport encouraging walking and cycling, an active and effective recycling policy and a school garden or other opportunities for children to explore the natural world. We also say in our challenge for secondary schools that we want to widen opportunities beyond the classroom. Those opportunities often provide some of the most memorable experiences at school, such as being involved in the school trip or drama production, or playing in the school team.

I would like to place tonight's debate very much in the context of those commitments in the five-year strategy. There is a relevance across the curriculum, as I think my hon. Friend set out powerfully in his speech, in science, geography, personal social and health education and citizenship. There is an enormous challenge, of which he reminded the House, to make science in the curriculum exciting and attractive for children and young people throughout their school days.

The 10-year science and innovation framework sets out the Government's ambition, and in particular, the contribution to be made to economic growth and public services by science. Clearly, science education is absolutely central. My hon. Friend referred to the national network of science learning centres for teachers and technicians. There is a major £51 million partnership between the Government and the Wellcome Trust to enable those centres to be established and to act as a focal point for the profession, pulling together regional resources to help improve science teaching and learning. The first three regional centres opened their doors on 1 October this year, with others already offering courses on other sites in the interim, and all nine due to be open at the beginning of the next school year, next September.

One aspect of the work of those centres is enabling young people to learn about and use field work, to manage interesting experiments in the laboratory and to have confidence to use a range of strategies together with in-depth subject knowledge. We have funded both the Association for Science Education and the Geographical Association to develop training courses
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that will increase teacher skills and confidence in leading outdoor learning. That will be achieved through some of the science learning centres starting next year.

Clearly, freeing up teachers to teach is at the heart of the work force reform changes in our schools. The extra role for support staff is very important and can contribute to the encouragement and organisation of outdoor activities. Such staff can contribute by acting as local environmental volunteers, for example, or providing cover for a teacher who is out on field work, away from school.

In the 10-year science and innovation framework, we are committed to training a new cadre of higher level teaching assistants so that every secondary school in England can recruit at least one by 2007–08. Of course that is not enough. We also need to recruit more science teachers to enable the work to continue into the longer term.

My hon. Friend rightly reminded the House of the importance of involving children and young people in these areas. He referred in particular to the challenge of building new schools and involving young people in some of those decisions from an early stage. We have an ideal opportunity to do that with the "Building Schools for the Future" programme, which aims to rebuild or refurbish all our secondary schools over a 15-year period. As a Government we must rise to the challenge of ensuring that children and young people in our schools and in our communities are part of those decisions right from the beginning.

Last year we published, "Excellence and Enjoyment", our strategy for primary schools. That strategy encourages a rich and exciting curriculum, with better use of resources and opportunities in and beyond the classroom, to make learning more flexible and imaginative. Outdoor learning is central to the agenda of "Excellence and Enjoyment". I am pleased at the welcome that the document received not only in education, but in terms of the environment and outdoor learning. Getting children out of the classroom to explore the natural world is a powerful way of making science and the broader curriculum come alive. I tread with care when I disagree with my unnamed ministerial colleague whom my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech. I have no doubt that there can be no substitute for the excitement of outdoor learning and seeing the natural world with one's own eyes.

There is an exciting joint project between science learning centres and the Woodland Trust to tie in with the BBC's spring theme. Each of the regional centres is providing training for primary school teachers on how the arrival of spring can be measured by identifying trees in bud and the appearance of insects. Schools will be able to record their results on the Nature Detectives website as part of a national experiment. These are projects that we want to encourage, so that we can see the flowering of outdoor learning and field work, about which my hon. Friend rightly spoke.

I turn to the important topic that my hon. Friend mentioned—some of the barriers that exist or are perceived to exist to outdoor learning. It is important that we build the case for such learning. I concur with my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Field Studies
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Council for the work that it does. The study that it published earlier this year provides us with substantial evidence that field work effectively planned, well managed and well taught can offer learners opportunities to develop their knowledge and skills in ways that add value to the everyday educational experience in the classroom.

Our own programme, "Growing Schools", is funding further research, including in-depth case studies at outdoor sites, and investigating teaching and learning processes, learning outcomes and wider benefits. We are also conducting action research with a group of teachers, field centre staff and farm educators to trial teaching and evaluation strategies. That will report in April next year.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of school trips. I recognise that there are barriers to schools doing field work. There are practical issues and others that are less tangible. I am keen to send out the message that we want to help and support teachers in realising that by following good practice, we can ensure that visits are as safe as possible, and we can be confident that unfair accusations against teachers and other staff can be swiftly dismissed. Our own investigations through "Growing Schools" show that there is a generally shared view of the barriers to schools undertaking learning outside the classroom. We want to work with everyone—the teacher unions, the head teacher associations, the other unions, the "Growing Schools" national advisory group and the whole range of national organisations—to make sure we get this right. I would also like to put on record my thanks to the subject associations, especially those involved with geography and science, for the important role that they are playing in supporting us in developing this important work.

We have produced practical and well-received guidance on health and safety, with five booklets aimed at specific target audiences for local education authorities, for schools and for group leaders, and these are available on our teachernet website. We are doing all that we can to manage the risks. There are risks—my hon. Friend is right—but it is possible for the current system to be harnessed in the way that he described to the educational benefit of children and young people in our schools.

Some people are also keen on the idea of a statutory entitlement to a set number of days of outdoor learning and I can see some attractions in that sort of approach. What we want to do, and what we are doing as a Department, is to work closely with a wide group of partners towards a common vision. A number of our partner organisations have put to us the idea of an outdoor learning manifesto and I am keen to explore that further.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me this opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government and for making a powerful case this evening for the importance of field work in science, in geography and throughout the school curriculum at every stage. I join with him in saying that I think there is a continued and, I hope, growing role for that excellent work in the outdoor classroom.

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