Thursday 13 December 2012

Ash dieback worsened by 'science dieback'

Natural fascination: children discover a slow worm in Fryent Country Park

There was an interesting juxtaposition of articles in yesterday's papers. The lack of plant pathologists was cited in evidence to the Parliamentary Environment Committee as a reason for the slow reaction to the ash tree die back crisis. This was attributed to 'severe' job losses in plant science as well as the lack of university courses in the subject. Barry Gardiner MP uncovered the lack of controls on the import of firewood and wood pellets produced from infected ash trees which could carry the disease into the country if they were mixed with leaves and twigs from the trees. Meanwhile the National Trust criticised the government's interim measures for prioritising the continuation of trade over dealing with the threat. Simon Pryor from the National Trust said, 'Through this action plan we're effectively surrendering the British landscape to this disease.'

Cuts, education policy and the prioritisation of trade combine to make a difficult situation worse and underline the Coalition's incompetence.

The other news story was about the decline in scientific knowledge of 14 year olds in international comparisons, Such comparisons are notoriously unreliable but there has been less emphasis on science in primary schools as a consequence of the ending of written tests in the subject at the end of Key Stage 2. With schools being judged on test results in English and Mathematics and low results bringing negative Ofsted judgements and threats of forced academy status,  schools are concentrating on the 3Rs.

Children's fascination with the natural environment (see them clustered around snails, slugs and worms in the school garden or bent over paving stone cracks on 'flying ant day') should be an interest to build on in the classroom, but too often it is ignored, to concentrate on the timetabled literacy and maths lessons.

This is a pity as so much mathematics and literacy can come out of science based on motivating and exciting  first hand experience rather than lessons down-loaded from the internet. A lifelong interest in nature can come from such early encounters.

Michael Gove will no doubt blame teachers for this, although it is a consequence of both Labour and the Coalition's narrow view of education and their repressive testing regime. It does not even make sense in their own terms as the need to compete internationally, that they both cite,  requires creativity and adaptability rather than the regurgitation of facts and model essays that the new examination system is emphasising.

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