Has The Extinction Event Already Begun For Minority Subjects In UK Education?

There is a real opportunity to protect our minority subject from future risks, but we all need to work together to build a stronger foundation

09/03/2018 16:09 GMT | Updated 09/03/2018 16:09 GMT
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I was recently explaining to my students that the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs was not the only event that caused their demise. For thousands of years the climate had been changing, resources such as water and food were becoming scarcer and volcanic activity was changing the atmosphere. That is not to say that the asteroid did not play a part, it just did not result in all dinosaurs dying the day after impact. It would have been a long drawn out process over millennia and generations. It was at that moment that I realised that this was a perfect metaphor for what happened to A level Archaeology, the environment changed (the government changed), resources started to dwindle (money had to be cut from budgets with schools and colleges having to justify smaller subjects) and eventually the asteroid struck (AQA decided not to pursue a linear A level).

For many who teach minority subjects this was a wake-up call; if we are to ensure we do not become next on the evolutionary cliff edge, then we needed to adapt. Our subjects need to grow, people need to become aware of our existence and see our value in a modern education system. For Geology, this relevance seems obvious to those of us who teach it. We need geologists to find oil, metals and other natural resources, ensure the rocks beneath our feet are stable to build on, and to make sure that the impact of hazards such as earthquakes, landslides and volcanoes are sufficiently managed. Without geologists, the modern world would become a more dangerous and less technologically developed place (although to a teacher of adolescents, the subsequent purge of the mobile phone may be considered a reasonable pay-off!). And so it becomes ever more important that we continue to enthuse students at GCSE and A level, and that young people continue to become geologists and contribute to this ever growing industry. For most of us, we did not initially plan this path, we met an amazing Geology teacher who convinced us to give it a go, take an alternative subject and see where it led us.

But the sad fact is that every year fewer and fewer institutions offer the subject, and the worst affected are state funded academies, comprehensives and sixth form colleges. For some, it is the lack of funding that causes the untimely extinction, while for others it is the difficulty in finding a suitable Geology teacher, with candidates becoming more difficult to find with each vacancy. This has been made worse by the lack of opportunities to become a geologically trained teacher (only Keele University offer places each year) and the fact that geological professions are lucrative and readily available. In the summer of 2017 there was an almost 15% decline in entries at A level compared to the previous year and signs are that this will continue.

What is confusing about this trend is that, from an industry viewpoint, we need more geologists in the UK, and academically, it is a great subject to teach. Not only is it infectious for the teachers but it also engages students and gets them undertaking tasks that they very often would have considered beyond them. I often joke it is the accessible science but, for many who were turned off by science at school, it is their route back into STEM subjects and reignites their passion for physics, chemistry and biology. And it is the loss of Archaeology as an A level in England and Wales - and the loss of Geology as a course in Scottish schools - that has made me realise that, while the environmental conditions have changed in UK education, we need to think about how we adapt to protect the future of GCSE and A level Geology long term, as well as other minority subjects.

So this is the time to be bold and champion our little subjects. Classics has been far the most courageous, leaping to its own defence with a clearly defined project, an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project ‘Advocating Classics Education’. Aware of the fact that Classics is often taught in private institutions, Professor Edith Hall is leading a dedicated team of people to help support those already teaching the subject and offering help to those who wish to bring Classics into their own institution. And Geology is in a far stronger position than Archaeology found itself last year. While Archaeology had had no group dedicated to promoting it in education, Geology has had the Earth Science Teachers Association (ESTA), now 50 years old and dedicated to the promotion of Geology from primary schools through to Higher Education. It is apparent that we have the potential to grow and allow more students to access our fantastic subjects.

In order to remain successful, we teaching these smaller subjects have to look beyond our comfort zone and start to challenge our existing modus operandi. Geology for instance is well established in market towns and more affluent areas. Is it possible to convince schools and colleges in inner cities to offer Geology? If we are to convince more people to take on the subject who is to lead the way? ESTA has been at the forefront of the subject but, as a charity, has required a number of people getting involved for free to ensure that the organisation runs smoothly. Is it time to be bold and follow Classics? Certainly we have more opportunities to liaise and work with industry and should this not be considered?

There is a real opportunity to protect our minority subject from future risks, but we all need to work together to build a stronger foundation. While we will always need people to volunteer time to bring like-minded people together within our subject areas, we also crucially need to promote our subjects beyond our own network to ensure all can benefit and receive the same opportunities. To do this we need more than just these amazing teachers in their classrooms, we need to get them out into the public domain and promote what happens in our classrooms. In order to do this we need time and money, and maybe the classicists have developed a model that other subjects should consider to create a sustainable future. And this is what we are planning in geology and if you think you can help get in contact. Otherwise we may risk missing the first signs of our own extinction... and the asteroid may be close by.