The education secretary, Michael Russell MSP, is facing mounting pressure from pupils, teachers, academics and experts to reverse a decision to abandon higher geology qualifications in 2015.
Geology, or earth science, is the study of the rocks under our feet, and is crucial to understanding the dangers of climate pollution, as well as the extraction of oil, gas, gold and other minerals. 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.
But geology has suffered a sharp decline in Scottish schools, with only a tiny 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 declines in modern languages like German, French and Spanish in secondary schools. More than half Scotland’s schools were 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 unraveled 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.”
The RSGS chief executive, Mike Robinson, called on ministers to ensure that geology had 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”. The plan to axe from schools the “foundation stone” to understanding the physical world “just does add up”, he argued.
The idea for this weekend’s conference, entitled ‘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.
Another S6 student, 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 geography teacher, Rachel Hay, they were lucky to be at one of the few remaining schools to offer higher geology. Some geology jobs commanded high salaries, she pointed out.
“Scotland has world-class geodiversity and a long-standing reputation for geological research,” she added. “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, however, that the number of geology candidates was very low. “There is not the required infrastructure to support geology as a distinct subject for examinations at a national level,” said the SQA’s head of curriculum for excellence development, Roderic Gillespie.
“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 convenor of the SQA’s geology panel, argued that 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?”
This story prompted two letters to the Sunday Herald.