Friday, 24 May 2013

MSPs Discuss Future of Geology in Scottish Curriculum at Paliamentary Meeting

Geology outside, and inside, the Scottish Parliament Building.
Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. 
Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0.

We are delighted to report that the issue of retaining geology and earth sciences in the Scottish curriculum was discussed at a parliamentary meeting on Tuesday 21st.  

A number of the MSPs who attended a parliamentary lunch and presentation by sixth year pupils from Perth High on the 16th were impressed and added their voices to the call for geology to continue to be well represented in the curriculum.  

The decision has been made by the SQA to stop offering Higher geology as an examinable subject. The replacement qualification, environmental science, does not have much earth science content.  

Perth High pupils, supported by their teacher Rachel Hay, RSGS Education Officer Dr Joyce Gilbert, Professor Stuart Monro from Our Dynamic Earth, University of St Andrew's Dr Ruth Robinson, and RSGS President Professor Iain Stewart, presented their case for why they feel that geology should continue to feature strongly at senior level.

MSPs Liz Smith, Clare Adamson, Annabelle Ewing and Nanette Milne all referenced the presentation in a discussion about Public Science Engagement Initiatives.

After the page break please find extracts from the full meeting. The full text of the meeting can be found here. (45page pdf, discussion begins p7, geology p12)

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife, Con):

On Thursday last week, several members were privileged to listen to a group of pupils from Perth high school who had come to Parliament to press their case for a higher in geology—one of the subjects that is under threat of being discontinued by the Scottish Qualifications Authority in 2015. They argued strongly that geology is a subject that brings together so many different aspects of scientific inquiry, and one which could hardly be more important when it comes to the future of earth sciences and the Scottish economy. Indeed, I felt that their case was persuasive.


Likewise, we all know that the future success of an increasing number of companies in Scotland is underpinned by scientific knowledge and its practical application. Electronics has become a vibrant and dynamic industry, significantly contributing to meeting the changing needs of other industries such as automobiles and defence. Seventy per cent of Scotland’s exports come from the science, engineering and technology-related sectors and yet the oil and gas industries have expressed their concerns about skills shortages, and a recent OPITO survey of companies in Aberdeen identified finding talent and skills shortages as the number one challenge to their future competitiveness. That is an important warning.

Scotland’s science centres and festivals play a crucial role in making science more accessible to all age groups and for that reason we are happy to support the Government’s motion. Nonetheless, we believe that we need to enhance that attraction and do more to ensure that there is a stronger and more diverse science qualifications network that will meet the academic needs of pupils and students right across Scotland. It is about not just boosting the profile of science within the curriculum but ensuring that we make it as easy as possible for students to gain qualifications and work experience in the related industries.

To return to the question of geology, it is a subject that ought to lead to a wide variety of degree options and professional training for graduates for a range of industries, many of which are critical to Scotland’s long-term plans—particularly in the fields of oil and gas, mining and renewables. Job prospects and graduate employment for those students are high, with above-average salaries, yet very disappointingly SQA is looking to discontinue the geology higher in 2015. That decision is based—probably not surprisingly—on the very low numbers of SQA candidates in 2011 and 2012.

The argument is that attention should be focused elsewhere, on the subjects where there is much greater demand. However, we should be very careful about how we make such assessments—a point that was put to us by Ruth Robinson of the University of St Andrews last Thursday. She has made plain her view that the low uptake is driven by the very low numbers of teachers supporting the subject. Remarkably, no new teachers have been trained since 1985. That statistic is deeply worrying, particularly given the growing scope for earth sciences within the curriculum for excellence and the number of pupils who would like to do the subject if only they could be given the chance.

If we dig a bit deeper, we find that 13,000 from just over 100 schools have been involved in the geobus outreach programme that is run by St Andrews university. That is much more akin to the ratios that we would expect if we look at Wales, Northern Ireland and England, or at some European countries, such as Norway.

One pupil made the interesting point that there is hardly a more interesting and exciting country for geology than Scotland, so he rightly posed the question of why our uptake is so poor. If there are latent reserves in our mineral ores, there is also latent talent in our pupils, and it would be a great pity if they could not be allowed to develop those talents just because there is insufficient support for staff who want to teach the subject. I hope that the SQA might be persuaded to review its decision.

I conclude by noting that science is hugely important to us all. It is encouraging to see a growth in the number of conferences and festivals showcasing the best in Scottish scientific achievement, but that in itself will not be enough to deliver for pupils whose futures will be in the science industries. Those pupils and their teachers need to know that the curriculum for excellence will provide opportunities that are supported in the same way as other subjects are. Everything possible must be done to provide the relevant qualifications so that we have both the number and the quality of science graduates that Scotland needs for the years ahead.

Claire Adamson (Central Scotland, SNP)

As I mentioned earlier, Chris Hadfield says that “Canada rocks”, but we all know that it is Scotland that rocks. James Hutton was a pioneer in geology during the enlightenment, and he was also a physician, chemical manufacturer, naturalist and experimental agriculturist. He is known as “the father of geology”. We also have Maria Gordon, who was born in Monymusk and was the first woman to gain a PhD from the University of Munich. She published more than 30 papers on the geology of the South Tyrol region of Italy, and was the first geologist to show that limestone peaks were formed by the movement in the earth’s crust.
It was with great delight last week that I attended the event in the Parliament that Liz Smith mentioned. Students from Perth high school, professors and a teacher were there, and the students spoke about their experiences of studying higher geology. It was exactly the type of round-table event that Hugh Henry is looking for, so it is a pity that he missed it.
I will quote some of the comments from the young people of Perth high school on their experiences. They said that they
“were given a ... stunning tour of Dynamic Earth with its friendly Scientific Director, Prof. Stuart Munro”
and that they
“flew to distant planets in search of alien life, and ... over all the beautiful biomes on Earth”
looking at
“the tundra, deserts, and tropical rainforests.”
I did not see all of their presentation, but I know that it was very well received by those who were there. They also said that Fraser, from Our Dynamic Earth, brought along
“a range of rock samples, including obsidian, pumice and, sandstone. He explained the stories rocks can tell us about past climates and environments that existed in Scotland on our journey north from the equator over millions of years. Craig, Brooke, and Fraser then spoke about the wide variety of topics that are covered in Geology, and enthused about the ‘Scotland Rocks’ conference that they organised for Higher Geology pupils from all over Scotland in March. They even included a personal message from Prof. Iain Stewart.”
Of course, Professor Stewart is one of Scotland’s foremost scientists, and a great inspiration to young people.
I share some of the concerns that Liz Smith has eloquently raised today, but I am sure that the cabinet secretary and the minister will take those on board.

Annabelle Ewing (Mid Scotland and Fife) (SNP):  

 I, too, had the pleasure of attending the excellent event that Liz Smith organised. All credit goes to her for doing so. We listened to the enthusiasm of the school pupils in their pursuit of science.
One of the pupils whom Clare Adamson mentioned made the memorable comment that he wanted to make lots of money for the Scottish economy in pursuing a science career. That is an important point, because the application of science is a growing and important industry for Scotland, which I think we would all recognise and wish to encourage.

Clare Adamson:  

I agree with Annabelle Ewing; geology has been highlighted as being hugely important to oil and gas and to renewables technology, as we investigate those areas in Scotland.

The Scotland rocks event that Perth high school organised was an excellent example of engagement with the community. It involved a large number of people from across Scotland who have an interest in geology, including 35 students from Bannockburn high, Fortrose academy, George Heriot’s school and West Calder high. The event was held to celebrate and raise awareness of the profile of geology in Scottish schools. It was an excellent event, and an excellent example of engagement with the community.

Nanette Milne (North East Scotland) (Con):

Liz Smith began her speech by telling us about last week’s visit from pupils of Perth high school and their strong arguments in favour of retaining geology as part of the higher curriculum. I, too, attended that meeting, and I was hugely impressed by pupils’ enthusiasm for that subject and the clear excellence of the teachers who had generated their interest.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland's Languages):

Members made a number of useful speeches, to which I will try to refer in the short time that I have left. Liz Smith and Nanette Milne talked about geology qualifications. I appreciate the points that were made and the spirit in which they were put. The SQA makes independent assessments about the provision of qualifications, although it has to take some account of the use that is made of those qualifications. I understand that 44 people made use of such a qualification at all levels in the past year, and the SQA must take some account of that. However, the SQA has made efforts to address the concerns that have been raised about earth sciences by ensuring that aspects of geology feature in or are subsumed by other qualifications, such as those in geography and biology.

Liz Smith:  

I appreciate the concern that the minister has shown over the issue, and I thank the members who turned up at the event last Thursday. People do not deny that there is a demand-led scenario and that geology numbers have been rather low. The point that they make is that, with the development of earth sciences and the curriculum for excellence, it is a problem that insufficient teachers are trained in some of those areas, given the latent demand that exists. I ask the Government to address that.

Dr Alasdair Allan: 
In the continuous professional development of teachers, the science centres—particularly Our Dynamic Earth—have a beneficial role in ensuring that teachers have the confidence to talk about earth sciences. I hear the points that the member makes. I hope that she accepts in good faith the reasons that I have given, but I have no doubt that the debate will continue.