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Can biology A-levels be trusted to look after the future teaching of high quality ecological science?

Stephen Tilling


‘The primary place in which to work at ecology is necessarily in the field’
Tansley (1952/1987)

Most contemporary ecologists could not envisage a world without fieldwork. The ‘outdoor laboratory’ is where many of us were inspired, recruited to the discipline and subsequently honed our skills. I became an ecologist in the 1970s because I was fortunate enough to attend a residential field course as part of my A-level biology course. I shared that experience with many of my contemporaries, because ecology fieldwork was an essential feature of biology teaching in England’s schools at that time. However, for the past 30 years its profile has been eroded to the point at which the A-level ecology fieldwork component of the present two-year linear courses can be covered in a single lesson (Tilling, 2018).

‘Biology education without adequate fieldwork represents a major failure for students hoping to go on to further study or careers in ecology.’

In the meantime, the breadth and depth of ecology has grown to the point where it is arguably the most expansive and outward facing of all biology disciplines, with strong links to politics, economics, society, culture and technology as well as the environment, often reaching regional and global scales (Hutchins et al, 2012). Outdoor research in the future will require deep and open-ended inquiry, flexibility of application and a willingness to work across disciplinary ‘boundaries’ (Sutherland et al., 2013). Unfortunately, the long-term trajectory for A-level biology teaching has been in the opposite direction: seeking certainty in its teaching outcomes; finding little time for open inquiry or reflection; becoming atomised into discrete modules; and rarely reaching into other subjects. As a result, many students are unable to interpret the natural world on their doorsteps, or to make sense of the complex ecological issues encountered in their everyday lives. In short, biology education without adequate fieldwork provides poor preparation for A-level students who could otherwise take an informed and active role in future environmental stewardship. It represents a major failure for students hoping to go on to further study or careers in ecology.

I have been involved in many campaigns to reverse fieldwork’s decline, often set within more widespread concerns about a general demise of practicals in science teaching (see for example House of Commons, 2011), but fear that changes in science and biology education in secondary schools have now become so deep-seated that we need a fresh strategy to protect ecology teaching. Ecological science may need to find an additional home outside science and biology teaching. The most likely candidate is A-level geography, which has an ‘environmental’ content that overlaps significantly with ecology and a teaching style (pedagogy) that is suited to cope with complex and sometimes intractable contemporary issues. Geography has also been much more successful in securing and developing fieldwork compared to biology in recent decades, as illustrated by trends in Field Studies Council (FSC) centres over the past 50 years. When I attended my field course at an FSC centre in the 1970s, there were twice as many A-level biologists as there were geographers visiting FSC residential centres. Today, that statistic has been reversed, and the gap in fieldwork provision between both A-level subjects is widening.

There are risks in refocussing resources and support for improved ecology fieldwork away from science teaching. Compared to geography, school science has a stronger academic reputation and higher prestige; attracts more funding; is (unlike geography) a compulsory subject at GCSE level; is a stronger ‘facilitating’ subject for gaining entry to university science courses (including ecology); recruits greater numbers; and is more ‘inclusive’ (for example, attracting students from a wider range of urban and inner-city communities).

However, the future choices facing ecology in schools are stark, and postponing them is no longer a sensible solution. A stronger alliance between ecological science and school geography would provide mutual benefits. In particular, ecology’s access to fieldwork would be more secure and secondary school geography’s reputation as a ‘science’ strengthened. The alliance could increase the chance of future A-level students benefiting from the type of fieldwork experience that inspired me to become an ecologist.

This blog post is based on the article, ‘Ecological science fieldwork and secondary school biology in England: does a more secure future lie in Geography?’, by Stephen Tilling , which is published in the Curriculum Journal. It is free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Routledge.


House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2011) Practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips: Ninth Report of Session 2010–12: Volume I: Report, together with formal minutes. London: Stationery Office.

Hutchings M. J., Gibson, D. J., Bardgett, R. D., Rees M., Newton, E., Baier, A. & Sandhu, L. (2012) Tansley’s vision for Journal of Ecology, and a Centenary Celebration. Journal of Ecology, 100(1), 1–5.

Sutherland, W.J. et al (2013). Identification of 100 fundamental ecological questions. Journal of Ecology, 101(1), 58–67.

Tansley, A. (1952) What is ecology? Reprinted 1987, in Biological journal of the Linnean Society, 32(1), 5–16.

Tilling, S. M. (2018) Ecology Fieldwork and Secondary School Biology in England: does the future lie elsewhere? Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication.