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Fight to save geology in Scots schools

SCIENTISTS, students and teachers are fighting to save geology in Scottish high schools.

Above, The Old Man of Storr, one of the world's most famous geological sites and, below, Professor Iain Stewart  Main photograph: Damian Shields
Above, The Old Man of Storr, one of the world's most famous geological sites and, below, Professor Iain Stewart Main photograph: Damian Shields

Education Secretary Michael Russell is facing mounting pressure to reverse a decision to abandon Higher geology qualifications in 2015. Ironically, geology as a science was founded in Scotland.

Geology, or earth science, is the study of rocks and how the planet formed. The 18th-century Scottish scientist, James Hutton, is known as the father of modern geology, and Scotland is home to some of the world's most famous geological sites, such as Edinburgh Castle Rock, which is a volcanic plug, and the Old Man of Storr, formed during the last ice age.

But geology has suffered a sharp decline in Scottish schools, with only a handful now offering the subject compared to about 40 in the past. The number of pupils taking geology Highers fell from 63 in 2011 to 17 in 2012, and no new geology teachers have been trained in Scotland since 1985.

Concern was also voiced last year about a decline in modern languages like German, French and Spanish in secondary schools. More than half of Scotland's schools was reported to have dropped a requirement for pupils to study a foreign language until S4.

To highlight the threat to geology Highers, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS) has convened a conference of students, scientists and educationalists in Perth this weekend. It will be addressed by the well-known TV presenter and Scottish geologist, Professor Iain Stewart.

"It is truly perverse that a nation with an economy fuelled by offshore oil and gas reserves revealed by geologists, and that draws tourists to an intricate but majestic rocky landscape unravelled by geologists, is dropping that very subject from its advanced school curriculum," he told the Sunday Herald.

"Geologists are fond of pointing out that in terms of the raw materials for our modern world, 'the rocks provide'. But that is, of course, only if there are geologists trained to discover them."

RSGS chief executive Mike Robinson called on ministers to ensure geology has a future in Scottish schools. "We are determined not to see this subject disappear from our schools, or be sliced and diced until there's nothing left," he said.

"There is a danger that this country, which has led the world in geology and geography, is turning its back on these practical and vital modern sciences through a simple lack of understanding."

Dr Jim Hansom, a geologist at the University of Glasgow, urged the Scottish Government "to wake up and smell the coffee", calling the subject the foundation stone to understanding the physical world.

The idea for this weekend's conference, Scotland Rocks, came from a group of geology students at Perth High School. "Geology helps you understand the world and country we live in," said S6 pupil Sean Rofe,

Joe Purves added: "People are focused on discovering life beyond Earth, but we need to discover what's closer to home and understand how it came to be like it is."

According to their teacher, Rachel Hay, they are lucky to be at one of the few remaining schools to offer Higher geology.

Pointing out that some geology jobs command high salaries, she added: "Scotland has world-class geodiversity and a longstanding reputation for geological research. I very much hope that pupils will continue to have the opportunity to study geology in Scotland."

The government's Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) pointed out that the number of geology candidates is very low. "There is not the required infrastructure to support geology as a distinct subject," said Roderic Gillespie, the SQA's head of Curriculum for Excellence development.

"In the context of the new national qualifications, geology is considered to be very much a cross-curricular subject and, as such, aspects of geology are included in the new chemistry, physics, geography, science and environmental science courses."

But Peter Harrison, head teacher at Ullapool High School and former convener of the SQA's geology panel, argued the inclusion of the subject in other courses had not worked. The SQA's decision to drop geology Highers was "ill-informed", he said. "Earth sciences have an enormous amount to offer school education," he told the Sunday Herald. "Are we really saying we do not want our future citizens to have these opportunities?"

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Education

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