In our latest blog on the government’s 25 year plan for the environment, NAEE Fellow, Dr Melissa Glackin of King’s College, asks whether the science curriculum actually encourages fieldwork – and environmental education.

In Chapter 3 of the 25 Year Environmental Plan ‘Connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing’ the Government claim, ‘the new science and geography curriculum and qualifications encourage pupils to undertake field work as part of their course of study’.  As a science educator, my two immediate questions were: what evidence is there to suggest that fieldwork is encouraged in school science, and why ‘field work’ instead of environmental education?  Questions which are important if a 25 year plan is to build from an accurate assessment of current school provision and deliver a connected environmental literate society.

 Last year in an NAEE blog post, I agreed full-heartedly with Alan Kinder (CEO Geographical Association) about the contribution fieldwork has on student learning, and also highlighted my concern for science fieldwork:

“as a result of the 2014 curriculum reforms in England and the removal of assessed coursework, opportunities to complete fieldwork in science have narrowed. Steve Tilling, head of policy and advocacy at the Field Studies Council (FSC), reported at the Biology Education Research Group meeting in April 2017, that compared with geography, very few FSC field centres run biology fieldwork courses for KS3 & 4 groups. What’s more, average A-level biology residential stays have reduced from 5 days in 2004 to just under 3 in 2016.”

Earlier this month, at the Association of Science Education National conference, Steve Tilling presented more evidence of increasing concerns regarding science (biology) fieldwork, stating that: between 2005 and 2017 FSC A level biology residential courses had declined by 10%; and that between 2004 and 2017 biology A level residential course durations had fallen by 41.3%.  Hence, I am not convinced that current science curriculum and specifications are “encouraging pupils to undertake field work” as the Government claim.  My concern is that this statement will be read as true – and misconceptions will flourish as to the state of outdoor science learning in England that may halt or reduce support and provision in this key area of children’s learning.

As to why a focus on fieldwork rather than environmental education …. Being generous, perhaps ‘field work’ is used as a proxy?  However, this still presents a worrying picture. My current research, with colleagues at King’s, suggests that environmental education content in the science curriculum has declined.  Further, the breadth and opportunity for environmental education has been reduced.  Reflecting on science GCSE one science teacher put it:

“students do not have as much understanding of what the potential long term impacts [ from climate change] are going to be on them and so the motivation for them to modify their own behaviour patterns or choices is low, there’s not as much reason for them to do it….”

I suggest that if the Government want to achieve a society connected to the environment, there needs to be a clear strategy whereby Defra and the DfE work together to ensure that environmental education is prioritised, and that fieldwork, along with other strategies, serve to achieve this.

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Note: As ever with NAEE blogs, this post is a personal view, not that of the Association.  Melissa Glackin can be contacted at: melissa.glackin@kcl.ac.uk