Monthly Archives: September 2016

In Praise of PAGS


I hope you all had a varied and rich and enjoyable summer holiday. I also hope you’re all sufficiently relaxed. Raring to go? Inspired by the start of year INSET? Energised and enthused for the term ahead?


We have, however, just returned from our annual journey to darkest Somerset and the glorious Nettlecombe Court – the stately home leased to the Field Studies Council – where we take our Year 13 Biologists for a 4 day field trip at the start of September.

It’s a wonderful setting, especially if you like unfeasibly enormous oak trees and red sandstone mansions, and I always enjoy being there (the paperwork that precedes it… not so much…) – if the weather’s nice, and it usually is, it almost feels like we’re stealing a few extra days of summer holiday. Under clear night skies, with no light pollution, the stars are brilliantly clear and the Andromeda Galaxy is visible.

In the past, the students have always reported enjoying the trip, but there’s very little of the actual ecology that grabs them, apart, perhaps, from the half day catching invertebrates in the stream. The awful PSAs, the pretty much equally awful CourseWork, where everybody does the same thing and it’s artificial and joyless and mechanical, seem almost deliberately designed to make the experience of field work seem as pointless and dull as possible.

But this year was different. This year involved ecological PAGs. I was already a big fan of PAGs – the practical activities that just revolve around what you want to do anyway, and which are there to develop specific skills, but which do not contribute to the final mark/percentage of their A-level – but this was the clincher.

They got into groups of 2. They chose a question that THEY thought was interesting – and once we had approved it as appropriate and feasible – they set about designing the procedure that would enable them to answer the question. Not quite complete freedom, but pretty much complete autonomy.

And it was wonderful. They REALLY enjoyed it. Yes, you read that right.They really enjoyed Ecology and Ecological field work. Freed from the pressure of having to get marks and tick boxes and be assessed on their chi2 test, they just went for it. We had groups who looked at everything from phenotypic plasticity in nettles to lichen diversity and abundance on sycamores to inhibitory affect of rhododendrons to flatworm distribution in streams to shrimp preferences in ponds to…. lots more.

So, a rather joyous start to the term. Long may it continue.