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British Astronomy - Amateur and Educational Astronomy in Britain

In Britain today there are about 10,000 amateur astronomers.  This number is estimated from the membership of the 200 known amateur societies, which run meetings programmes that, in total, challenge the number of available articulate and knowledgeable speakers about astronomy.  170 of them are members of the Federation of Astronomical Societies, which brings some coordination to their activities. The principal amateur astronomy magazine in Britain is Astronomy Now, with a reputed 24,000 circulation.  Astronomy features in the National Curriculum taught in schools, which requires school pupils to learn about the sun, earth, moon and the solar system.   One examination board offers a qualification in astronomy as part of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (taken usually by students aged about 15) – but only about 500 students sit this exam each year (many of them adults and amateur astronomers).   The Association for Astronomy Education (AAE) promotes public education in astronomy. 

The Open University has a distinctive place in the field of tertiary education in Britain, established to provide mass university education for adults at their own pace and via distance learning techniques; its astronomy course is its most popular science course.  Following in its model there are now university-level distance-learning courses in astronomy given from a collaboration of Liverpool John Moores University, the University of Central Lancashire and Manchester University.
Three 2-metre telescopes have time available for use by students and amateurs in Britain, the largest telescopes so available in the world: the Liverpool Telescope on La Palma (5% of the time available through the National Schools Observatory, based in Merseyside at the Spaceport, for offline access by schools) and two privately-endowed Faulkes Telescopes at Haleakala in Hawaii and at Siding Spring Observatory, operated from Cardiff University (most of the time on each available free for British students through the WWW for remote observations from their schools).  The Bradford Robotic Telescope is three co-mounted telescopes ranging from a 16 mm camera lens to a 36 cm telescope, all with a CCD camera, and operating for student offline access at the Observatorio del Teide on Tenerife.

There are large static planetaria at public education centres for astronomy in Armagh, Bristol, Chichester, Dundee, Glasgow, Greenwich (a new one under construction), Isle of Wight, Jodrell Bank, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Sidmouth, Southend, Stockton, and Todmorton, some with active public observatories.  Leicester is home to the National Space Centre (NSC)*, a major educational venture associated with Leicester University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.  NSC has considerable success in attracting school students, especially the Challenger Learning Center, where it is possible to simulate space travel.   There are important astronomy educational centres at the locations listed above, at the newly opened Spaceport on Merseyside, and elsewhere (perhaps I may be permitted to include Birr Castle in Ireland in this list because of its connection with British astronomical history).  All this educational activity in astronomy is known from opinion surveys to be an important influence in attracting students to science, and is recognised as such at Government level.  This accounts for some of the support given to high profile research astronomy by Government sources.  Amateur astronomy is recognised as a component of continuing professional development for adults and its broad appeal figured in an enquiry by the members of parliament who form the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology on light pollution in the UK.  The main result from the committee's recommendations was a provision under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 making “exterior light emitted from premises so as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance” a criminal offence.  The effect of this provision is yet to be seen and light pollution is a limiting factor on the achievements of optical astronomy from Britain.

* The name is confusingly similar to ‘the British National Space Centre’ - from which it is completely distinct.