A sad day for high-tech industries

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Ian Jamieson takes issue with North Lanarkshire's 'back-to-basics' campaign

So environmental studies is to be the sacrificial lamb of North Lanarkshire's back-to-basics programme. I suppose it is just bad luck that environmental studies is the last of the national guidelines to be given attention in the 5 - 14 programme. The curriculum's undoubted loss will be the gain of those schools and teachers that have avoided science and technology in the hope it would go away.

The real irony is that an area of Scotland that once thrived on scientific and technological achievement and is the home of an impressive industrial heritage centre, Summerlee, should be the first to threaten those key curricular areas.

The plaudits given to the decision by headteachers are understandable in the present situation, where schools are worn out meeting the demands of the various guidelines. But given that North Lanarkshire has just seen a huge inward investment by industries which require a sciencetechnology skills base in their workforce, it could be a case of "today they are ringing the bells; tomorrow they may be wringing their hands".

Scotland is already suffering from a shortage of applicants for its scientific and technology-based university courses. I believe that the earlier we can expose our pupils to the content and processes of science, the greater chance there is of arousing an interest that may lead to a career choice in this area.

If we are to become participants in the scientific and technological revolution, a workforce equipped with the relevant mental and physical skills is needed. Where better to begin the education of that workforce than in primary school, where minds are open and curiosity is king? As the Jesuits once put it (with some political incorrectness), "give me the boy and I will show you the man".

I am not privy to director of education Michael O'Neill's 11 problems facing implementation of environmental studies in North Lanarkshire, but it is interesting that among those quoted is the old standby of "lack of teacher confidence" in science and technology. Since the "confidence in science" issue is not new, it might be pertinent to ask what steps have been taken by North Lanarkshire to address the problem.The Scottish Office will also want to see some return for the Pounds 1 million-plus recently invested in producing staff development material for primary teachers in science.

Finally, let us consider the reason for the re-allocation of time - to increase the time spent on literacy and numeracy. According to my calculations, reducing the time spent on environmental studies by 10 per cent will release 15 minutes a day for each. It seems to me that government policy on literacy and numeracy is merely being paid lip service, while being used as a convenient rod to beat the back of subjects that are less popular (with teachers, that is).

Would this decision have been made if expressive arts or religious and moral education had been in the same position as environmental studies? Will schools wield the axe evenly in environmental studies in order to make for balanced provision, or will they concentrate on the more "popular" areas at the expense of science and technology?

If the latter is the case, thenmore of our technology-based companies will have to introduce their own diploma and degree courses in order to address the lack of science education in their workforce.

Ian Jamieson is a lecturer in science, the department of mathematics, science and technological education, Jordanhill Campus, University of Strathclyde

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