The story was first reported in the Guardian (Climate change should be excluded from curriculum, says adviser) but taken up by a variety of other sources. Tim Oates, the adviser in question, is the director of research at Cambridge Assessment, one of the organisations which sets GCSE and A-Level exams in the England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He was charged by the coalition government with reviewing the entire 500 page national curriculum, which defines what children from 5 to 16 should be taught. Originally introduced following the Education Reform Act of 1988, the national curriculum was intended to define the core knowledge in key subjects which all state school pupils should be taught (the private sector does not have to abide by the same rule). However, from such sensible-sounding beginnings, it has now grown into the all-encompassing hydra we see today.
A review is certainly needed. The range of prescriptive teaching means that non-core activities such as music and team games have suffered and teachers complain of the lack of flexibility available to them. There is no evidence that pupils at private schools suffer because their teachers have greater freedom to plan lessons appropriately. After all, many parents are prepared to endure a certain amount of financial hardship to pay for their children to be taught in this way.
Science has for a long time been seen as ‘difficult’ and its popularity as a school subject has been in steady decline, at least until recently. In a bid to maintain children’s interest, it has been turned in part into a series of topical issues which are loosely science-based. For the great majority, this makes the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake a thing of the past. Education, so valued in poor and emerging economies, no longer seems a priority for many children in the rich world, despite the large amount of money and time devoted to it by governments.
Science teaching is typical: rather than teach facts and basic concepts, attempts are made to engage children by exploring what are seen as relevant issues. In a context where the aim is prizes for all, lessons are brought down to the lowest common denominator, which both fails to stimulate and stretch the more able while continuing to bore many of those for whom school is simply a turn off. As GCSEs test less and less about basic science, those going on to A-Level find the jump to more rigorous learning harder than ever, and relatively small numbers go on to study for a basic science degree. Physics and chemistry departments have been closed and those remaining – many of very high quality – are often more attractive to foreign students than home grown ones.
Since science skills underlie innovation in what is being called the knowledge-based economy, this does not bode well for a prosperous future. The UK is not atypical of European attitudes, although the broader educational base provided by the Baccalauréat and Abitur at least guarantees a degree of scientific literacy. Nonetheless, the sheer number of science graduates coming out of India and China strongly suggests that the balance of the world economy will move towards Asia faster than ever.
But to come back to the national curriculum in England, here is part of what the Guardian article says about the requirements for teaching about climate change and caring for the environment in science lessons (climate change also comes into the geography curriculum):
Age 11-14: Pupils should be taught how human activity and natural processes can lead to changes in the environment and about ways in which living things and the environment need to be protected. Teachers are encouraged to examine issues such as the finite resources available to us, waste reduction, recycling, renewable energy and environmental pollution.
Pupils demonstrate exceptional performance if they can "describe and explain the importance of a wide range of applications and implications of science in familiar and unfamiliar contexts, such as addressing problems arising from global climate change".
This seems to have little to do with conventional science education, more about indoctrination in the principles of environmentalism. How can it be said that a pupil who can ‘describe and explain the importance of a wide range of applications and implications of science in familiar and unfamiliar contexts’ understands any of the scientific concepts themselves? There is no reason at all why such a high profile topic should not be part of classroom discussion but feeding impressionable children a single view of a controversial topic does no-one any favours.
And, despite continued attempts from the scientific establishment to close down the discussion, controversy remains. Whatever the arguments made about the significance or not of temperature change over various periods (see, for example, the BBC’s Richard Black’s piece on Phil Jones’s recent pronouncement Global warming since 1995 ‘now significant’), records show little if any change in average temperatures in the last decade, a pattern which was also seen around the middle of the last century and which mainstream climate scientists neither predicted nor can adequately explain. A recent, albeit not entirely objective, piece in the Register announced Earth may be heading into a mini Ice Age within a decade, based on a view from scientists studying the Sun that it may be entering a quiet phase, possibly comparable to the Maunder Minimum.
Richard Black does not buy this (Solar predictions bring heat and light), opting for the view that any such influence will be overwhelmed by the contribution of the enhanced greenhouse effect. He may be right, but the current understanding of global climate systems seems to give little reason for certitude from anyone. Not that this has any influence on the ubiquitous Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change. In a follow up article on the Guardian website (Climate change education can still be part of a slimmed-down curriculum) he argues that children must continue to be told the truth about climate change.
To him, removing the legal requirement to teach the received wisdom on climate change in the geography and science curricula is dangerous: “...if fewer pupils learn about climate change, it will be harder for them to engage in public discussion about how we should tackle the problem, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and other human activities. There is already ample evidence that many people are confused about the basic facts about climate change, with, for instance 23% of people saying they are not at all or not very convinced that the earth's climate is changing.”
Science is about enquiry, evidence gathering and scepticism. Pupils need to be taught scientific principles and long-established theories and be well grounded in the scientific method. There is no reason why there should not be discussion of climate change in school, but to argue that, because 23% of people don’t share Bob Ward’s belief they are not being properly educated is just plain wrong. Young minds should be opened and not closed, unless we want to see a resurgence of Lysenkoism.
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A UK Education adviser has proposed that climate change should no longer form part of the national curriculum for schools. It may come as a surprise to some that it is in fact a government requirement that children should have to learn about something which is still controversial, rather than basic underlying science. But this is simply part of a trend in recent years to teach about social issues rather than impart the core knowledge of the science behind them.