Memorandum submitted by Science and Plants
for Schools (SAPS)
We welcome this opportunity to submit evidence
to the Science and Technology Committee's Inquiry into Science
Education (14-19). In producing this submission we recognise that
the remit of the Committee is to look at science education in
a broader sense. We will, however, focus on those areas of the
curriculum that deal with plants.
SAPS makes the following recommendations:
1. the place of plant science in the science
curriculum must be examined urgently;
2. plants should be used more widely to teach
basic biological principles;
3. the curriculum should be shaped in such
a way as to allow more opportunities for challenging practical
work using plant materials thereby providing hands-on experience
of working with plants;
4. fieldwork should, wherever possible, be
encouraged in the post-16 curriculum as a means of gaining first
hand experience of plants and an understanding of plant biodiversity
and whole organisms in context;
5. the quality of plant science material
in textbooks and other resources must be reviewed critically both
for its accuracy and its appeal to students;
6. leading plant scientists with an up-to-date
knowledge of plant processes should be involved in curriculum
design and preparation of syllabuses;
7. teachers should be given regular and frequent
opportunities to update their skills and expertise in plant science,
including a knowledge of current applications, through programmes
of continuing professional development.
SAPS is a national programme. In the time since
it was formed in 1990, SAPS has become one of the most influential
organisations in science education. A recent survey (1999) of
schoolteachers, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and conducted
by Harris Research, found that SAPS was rated as having the highest
impact, in terms of curriculum enhancement, amongst a range of
Through its various activities, SAPS aims to:
develop new educational resources;
promote exciting teaching of plant
science and molecular biology;
interest young people in plants and
in molecular biology.
Further information about SAPS is presented
in Appendix 1.
4. EVIDENCE BASE
There is growing anecdotal evidence of a lack
of interest in, and understanding of, plants among young people.
This is most marked in secondary education, particularly among
pupils studying for national examinations. Plant science is perceived
to have only a minor role in the biology curriculum, and is frequently
poorly taught and regarded as not interesting (Van Rooy, 2002).
This results in cohorts of students poorly informed on issues
that require an understanding of plant biology (food supply, biodiversity,
environmental matters, genetically modified organisms, climate
change, etc). It also adversely impacts on the numbers of students
taking plant science courses at university, and on the numbers
of students carrying on to do research degrees in plant sciences.
We are failing to train sufficient numbers of plant scientists
for the future.
The following submission raises key questions
concerning plant science education. Wherever possible, we have
provided answers, but realise that for many questions the answers
are currently not available. However, we believe the questions
should be urgently addressed by the appropriate authorities, stimulated
by the views of the Select Committee.
4.1 There is great potential for national
wealth creation provided that we maintain a plant science base
in the UK. In order for this to become reality, it is imperative
that our education system delivers two things:
a public that understands plants
and plant science in a way that helps them to make sensible, informed
a supply of high quality plant scientists.
The current 14-19 curriculum does not allow
sufficient opportunities for either target to be achieved. It
is also essential that the curriculum provides insight into the
applications of plant science and the potential implications for
4.2 Advances in molecular plant sciences
are opening up extensive opportunities in many areas including
agriculture, horticulture, medicine (eg vaccine production by
plants), food production, alternative fuel and polymer sources.
In order for the UK to maintain its global position in these areas
it is vital that the curriculum enables people to develop appropriate
underpinning knowledge and expertise in plant science.
4.3 If the UK community opts to reject work
on GM crops and decides that the UK should favour the "organic
route", then new generations of plant scientists will be
needed to carry out basic research as we strive to increase both
food quality and harvest yields whilst reducing the environmental
impact of agriculture. There is a trend for plant biotechnology
companies to withdraw from the UK and there is no longer a major
British-owned company of this sort. With the current uncertainty
over the position of genetically modified organisms in agriculture,
there is little incentive for multinational companies to invest
in the UK.
4.4 It is becoming increasingly clear that,
among students choosing bioscience programmes, the study of plants
is losing out to other areas of biology. Fewer undergraduates
are choosing plant science options and as a result some universities
have ceased, or will cease, to offer these.
4.5 When questioned about their lack of
interest in plants, undergraduates repeatedly blame their experience
of plant science while at school and say that they carry forward
this negative attitude to university.
4.6 The trend in universities for students
to turn away from plants reflects a similar attitude among teachers
and their students in schools and colleges. This is reinforced
because, among the intake to the teaching force, there are fewer
and fewer graduates who have studied plants or have any specialist
knowledge of plant science. The effect of this lack of specialist
knowledge has been confirmed in recent studies (Kinchin, 2000)
where it was shown that some of the misconceptions held by students
about photosynthesis can be attributed to the quality of teaching.
4.7 There are further concerns relating
to the teaching of plant science in secondary education. Changes
to the pre- and post-16 curriculum in recent years have resulted
in an erosion of plant science topics and a noticeable bias towards
animal topics, or human biology, rather than plants.
There are fewer specific references to plant
material in the latest (Curriculum 2000) AS and "A"
level specifications (syllabuses), and what remains is often seen
as isolated fragments that are difficult to make interesting and
lack a coherence.
The modular structure of A-level courses means
that teachers and students can (and do) avoid plant topics where
choice is available.
4.8 The situation would be improved if plants
and plant material could be integrated throughout the course when
teaching basic biological concepts. Plants have the potential
of being at least as interesting as animals and there are wonderful
opportunities for students to do a huge range of interesting practical
and investigative work without many of the restrictions that apply
to similar work using animal material.
4.9 Much of the experimental work with plants
lends itself readily to assessment and could be incorporated in
the examination system. There is abundant evidence from the SAPS
website that, suitably guided by enthusiastic teachers, students
can undertake challenging, hands-on project work with plant material.
4.10 Fieldwork offers first hand experience
of living organisms (plants and animals) and allows students to
begin to appreciate how they interact, and to make genuine observations
away from a more constrained classroom context. Such experience
is of particular importance for society to understand environmental
issues, including sustainability and biodiversity, and the role
of plants in these areas. However, analysis of the specifications
for A-level Biology in the new Curriculum 2000, reveals a reduced
emphasis on ecological topics.
4.11 The way in which plant topics are assessed
in written examinations does not encourage students to develop
an interest in plants. Indeed, responses by candidates to examination
questions set on plant topics (and ecological or environmental
topics) often reveal poor understanding, particularly when compared
to their responses to equivalent animal topics. This may be the
result of lack of interest (from the candidates) as well as poor
At present, there is a large input from examination
board officers and a small circle of examining personnel in the
development of specifications (syllabuses) and the setting of
examination papers. There is less opportunity than in the past
to benefit from wider subject expertise, including that of practising
There is also a greater emphasis for the examination
boards to comply with the framework imposed by Qualifications
and Curriculum Authority in order to gain their approval for the
specifications and assessment schemes.
4.12 In an environment in which the curriculum
is so tightly prescribed, it is not surprising that publishers
produce texts that merely cover syllabus content. These limitations
in published resources tend to discourage students and teachers
from exploring wider areas of biology and developing an interest
in, and fascination for, plants.
4.13 It is worth noting that the SAPS programme
in Scotland has been extremely successful in influencing the post-16
curriculum because the system is much more receptive to curriculum
initiatives of this type.
4.14 An immediate priority must be to improve
the quality of plant science teaching. This can be achieved by
offering a programme of continuing professional development (CPD)
for teachers. There is evidence (Council for Science and Technology,
2000) to suggest that CPD opportunities for teachers in the secondary
sector rarely focus on subject specific skills (which teachers
would prefer) but instead concentrate on whole school or national
The SAPS programme provides a framework that
allows us to support teachers and students who wish to do more
work on plants. Despite the quality of the CPD opportunities that
SAPS offers teachers, one needs to recognise that the current
curriculum straightjacket often precludes incorporation of these
new skills into classroom practice.
4.15 Here we wish to make a general point
about the science curriculum as a whole. The science curriculum,
pre- and post-16, is so densely packed and so frequently assessed
that there is little opportunity for imaginative teachers to make
use of their talents or for students to be adventurous. Teaching
has become a much less attractive career for creative people.
The tragedy is that it is those very people who capture the interest
of students and so a key question that needs to be addressed is:
"What can we do to make teaching, especially
the teaching of science, attractive to lively, creative people
who will enthuse young people so that they retain a lifelong interest
in the subject?"
We contend that a large part of the answer lies
(i) the structure of the curriculum;
(iii) the supporting educational resources
that allow its successful delivery.
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