Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Field Studies Council

  1.  The Field Studies Council (FSC) is a pioneering educational charity committed to bringing environmental understanding to all. Established in 1943, the FSC has become internationally respected for its national network of 17 education centres. The FSC provides informative and enjoyable opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to discover, explore, be inspired by, and understand the natural environment.

  2.  The FSC welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the inquiry into science teaching at schools and continue to promote the importance of fieldwork, specifically within the science curriculum, and the barriers which currently prevent its full benefits from being realised.

  3.  Good quality residential fieldwork helps to improve education standards. Despite this, fieldwork provision in science and biology is declining in British secondary schools. A minority of 11-16 students will now venture outside the classroom and even in A-level biology nearly half the students will do no fieldwork, or will only have a half-day experience near to their schools. Residential science fieldwork is available to fewer than 5% of GCSE students and this provides a stark contrast with other subjects such as history, music and geography where the levels can be 10 times higher.

  4.  FSC believes that the decline in educational field visits has a negative effect on the number of pupils choosing science at A-level and that if the government is serious about its commitment to attract more science teachers, science needs to be made more attractive to GCSE pupils and a-level students. Recent surveys by the Science Museum and Awarding Bodies have shown consistently that practical hands on activity, visits and excursions are the most enjoyable aspects of science education. Yet, these are the very elements which are most at threat. The potential for such activities for recruitment to the subject is valued much more highly by teachers in other subjects, in geography for example.

  5.  The decline in science fieldwork is now extending to universities and appears to be leading to a shortfall in people with the practical skills needed to support biodiversity and teaching related careers and activities. It also undermines the potential to raise the level of informed environmental awareness at a time when there is an increasing demand for students, volunteers and the general population to be aware of their impact on the world around them. This is a strategic weakness for the government because a great majority (76%) of its biodiversity field programmes—including those which are meeting EU statutory compliance needs—are dependent on volunteers.

  6.  Fieldwork can make a real difference in enthusing and inspiring young people to take up the science at A-level and at university. It helps students to develop their understanding of science as an evidence-based discipline and to acquire the hands-on experimental skills that are an essential part of scientific inquiry. More importantly, there can be reinforcement between the affective and the cognitive, with each influencing the other and providing a bridge to higher order learning[19]. FSC therefore strongly encourages the inclusion of a fieldwork element within the Science national curriculum for GCSE students and would like it to be made a mandatory requirement for all A level biology students.

  7.  As part of London Outdoor Science, a two-year project to develop the use of local sites for secondary science fieldwork, 60 secondary schools in 5 Inner-London boroughs were surveyed to assess current levels of science fieldwork using local sites (including school grounds). Evaluations of the project have shown that, despite the repeated offers of external support by an experience secondary science teacher to help schools in developing local fieldwork opportunities and provide some school-based or local training for science teachers, only a quarter of the schools in the five borough project have responded.

  8.  Of those that did not respond, the key barriers quoted for not doing fieldwork in science lessons were lack of time within the syllabus/timetable, limited staff knowledge/expertise, limited school equipment, lack of school grounds, time consuming administration to complete before even attempting field trips; finances, health and safety and administration, curriculum objectives for outdoor work limited at key stage 4, pupil behaviour and staffing cover difficulties.

  9.  Fieldwork provides an opportunity for teachers to develop a different and, potentially, more positive and productive relationship with their students. The dynamics and interrelationships developed whilst working in groups can have a huge influence on how students develop socially. This is particularly true for residential experiences.

  10.  FSC was supported in this view by the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee Report on Education Outside the Classroom which was published in 2004. The report said: "outdoor learning can benefit pupils of all ages and can be successful in a variety of settings. We are convinced that out-of-classroom education enriches the curriculum and can improve educational attainment."[20]

  11.  FSC is concerned that fieldwork skills are no longer passed on to science teachers as part of an informal `mentoring' process. As a result, these skills could be lost entirely as older teachers leave the profession. The DfES should therefore engage teachers' professional bodies and subject associations in the provision of fieldwork training for science and geography teachers and ensuring that appropriate programmes of professional development are on offer to all those teachers who might benefit.

  12.  FSC organises field trips for 11-14 year olds for London secondary schools through the London Challenge project. Interviews with participating teachers and pupils have shown that there is increased co-operation between pupils with new friendships being established; improved relations with teachers; increase in knowledge and skills base. Most significantly, those pupils who often demonstrate challenging behaviour are reported to have improved attention and show participation back in the classroom.

  13.  The government has identified Science Learning Centres (SLCs) as being key to the delivery of fieldwork training and continuing professional development to teachers. The FSC has engaged fully in the important opportunity that SLCs offer; developing and running a number of CPD courses. Despite securing grants from the British Ecological Society to cover all costs to teachers, we have been disappointed that almost all courses have cancelled due to low take-up teachers.

  14.  We support the Schools Minister's decision to reconsider the status of outdoor learning within Initial Teacher Training (ITT). We support the House of Commons Education Select Committee view that the DfES should work with the Training Development Agency to ensure that ITT and CPD courses demonstrate the potential benefits of education outside the classroom and point teachers towards ways to develop their skills in this area as their career progresses. We also welcome the government's forthcoming Outdoor Learning manifesto. We are concerned, however, that science fieldwork may not benefit from these initiatives unless changes are strongly driven by policy, and supported by adequate resources and training.

  15.  The profile of fieldwork needs to be raised; OFSTED should conduct spot inspections on quantity and quality of fieldwork provision and fieldwork should be included in school Self Evaluation Frameworks.

  The FSC therefore proposes that:

  Curricula must acknowledge the importance of fieldwork in helping to deliver learning outcomes in science teaching. The need for fieldwork should be strongly encouraged at KS3 and GCSE, and mandatory for A-level students. OFSTED should conduct spot inspections on quantity and quality of fieldwork provision and fieldwork should be included in school Self Evaluation Frameworks.

  The TDA, SLCs and Association for Science Education should be encouraged and supported to build the competence and confidence within science teaching to deliver high quality fieldwork—the strongest way of bringing the subject to life.

June 2006

19   A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning, National Foundation for Educational Research, March 2004, page 2. Back

20   Education Outside the Classroom, House of Commons Education Select Committee, February 2005. Back

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