Environmental Education

It’s funny how life works out. The complicated, convoluted educational journey we embark on with our children, results in a path that leads us in a direction we never fore-sore. Oakridge School is such a path. Some hills are worth climbing if what’s on the other side of the summit is worth walking for. Whatever may lie on the other side, be it people you’ve never met or opportunities you’ve never had, a window of opportunity is created. With great passion and determination, much can be achieved and that’s how the school allotment was born.

Bringing environmental education to the forefront of the national curriculum is that summit. It’s thinking about what’s important to our children and making that thought count. It’s not always easy to make a lasting impression, but with spirit and belief, change can happen. It’s small steps that gradually, over time, gather momentum and turns heads. Eventually people will listen.

From The Ground recently met with David Drew, Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to discuss ways that environmental education can become more prominent within the national curriculum. He was extremely receptive to the conversation and the outcome of the meeting was very positive. David made some good suggestions about how to take the campaign forward. He confirmed he is willing to come on board and support it.

As it stands the national curriculum currently comprises of twelve subjects, classified as core (maths, English and science) and foundation, (art and design, citizenship (KS3 and KS4 only), computing, design and technology, languages, geography, history, music and physical education). There is no reference about the environment, bar one paragraph on page one hundred and sixty one within the year four programme of study:

"Pupils should explore examples of human impact, (both positive and negative) on environments, for example, the positive effects of nature reserves, ecologically planned parks, or garden ponds, and the negative effects of population and development, litter or deforestation."

Can one paragraph sum up everything that is wrong with our planet? There are one hundred and thirty pages devoted to English and maths, thirty one pages to science, five pages to history, four pages to design and technology and geography, three pages to languages and physical education and just two pages to art and design, computing and music. It’s a very boring read that is unbalanced, uninteresting and incredibly uninspiring. It’s no wonder so many children are being turned off from learning. In this day and age, with increased concern over climate change and other environmental issues, it's simply not good enough: the curriculum needs a massive overhaul to bring it bang up to date with 21st century issues. Why are our children not being given the opportunities to learn about subjects that really matter? The curriculum could be so much more diverse and engaging, it could be generating enthusiasm and enjoyment and the children could be reaping the rewards that come with the benefits that outdoor learning brings.

Attempts have been made in the past to recognise environmental education. To take an excerpt or two from The Environmental Curriculum written by the NAEE, the breakthrough came in 1990 when it was introduced as a cross-curricular theme. However, when the national curriculum was reviewed in 1994 the revised version no longer made any explicit reference to the subject.

In 2000, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) was introduced as a non-statutory element of the curriculum. This was followed in 2006 by the launch of the Government's Sustainable School's Strategy (S3), which encouraged schools to follow environmental topics in order to become completely sustainable by 2020, (that’s next year, and just look at how far away we are from that.) S3 was scrapped by the education secretary in 2010.

Since the national curriculum was further streamlined in 2014, there is still no explicit reference to environmental education and this is where we are at with things today.

The reason From The Ground met David Drew is because we want environmental education to be added as a core subject to the national curriculum for all key stages. With backing from David, advice about how that goal can be achieved and gaining local support from schools and environmental groups, much progress can be made.

There are three interrelated components of environmental education, (words taken from The Environmental Curriculum written by the NAEE):

Education IN the environment

The 'hands-on' element which uses the children's immediate surroundings and the wider world as a learning resource.

Education ABOUT the environment

Developing knowledge and understanding about the environment should begin with an awareness of the local environment and then expand to an understanding of global environmental issues.

Education FOR the environment

The development of positive attitudes and behaviours towards the environment. This can only be effective if the other two elements are in place.

Within the subject of environment, suggested statutory topics could include the following:

1. Climate change

2. Over population

3. Intensive farming and GM food

4. Natural disasters

5. Environmental degradation

6. Pollution (plastic and ocean waste)

7. Sustainability

8. Conservation

9. Resource depletion (habitat loss)

10. Recycling

11. Environmental law

In addition, we also want school gardening to be made statutory within the national curriculum framework and legislation put in place making it compulsory for all schools to adopt their own independent, environmental code.

There are some that proclaim that all this is already integrated within the curriculum, but quite frankly, those who think that, need to do a little more soul searching. Yes, there are opportunities within the current framework but does it go far enough? Previous attempts by past governments to get more recognition for the subject suggests that it doesn’t. Are we, as parents, satisfied that the curriculum is delivering a comprehensive environmental education to our children? Can we be confident that important environmental topics are being delivered on a daily basis?

One can’t sweep subjects such as climate change, plastic pollution, ocean waste, habitat loss and conservation of our native species under the carpet: they are problems that have been caused by us and solving them is fundamental to human existence. Further more, none of those words are currently specifically referenced within the national curriculum. How are our children to understand the importance of these key concepts if they aren’t given the opportunity to learn them? If twelve subjects could be expanded to thirteen, then perhaps there is a chance of human survival: not unlucky for some. Education is the key to change, and it is our responsibility, as the now generation, to teach the next generation, so that our children and our children’s children can keep an open mind about the importance of preserving and saving our planet. Put your hand up who’s in?

The meeting with David Drew proved most useful, with David offering some insightful views into how we can begin to try and force change. In order to get to the top, one needs to work up from the bottom and that starts with gathering evidence. As a starting point, David suggested From The Ground cross reference the entire science curriculum with everything Oakridge School are doing on the allotment in order to show that it is a provable and measurable learning device. Once all the relevant areas within the national curriculum have been highlighted, the hope is that an environmental education plan can be rolled out to schools in the area to encourage them to come on board and implement a similar initiative. A draft petition that focuses specifically on schools will ask if they would sign up to make environmental education a core subject on the national curriculum. A Parliamentary question would then inevitably follow.

From The Ground has cross referenced not only the science curriculum, but the whole curriculum. A lot of nights have been spent pouring over a rather dull read full of rules and rather boring regulations: one struggles to find any form of delight in a document that has clearly been written by relics from the past who have lost touch with what it’s like to be a child. Yet with commitment and tenacity, opportunities have been discovered: just last week class two spent a morning doing a maths session on the allotment learning about perimeters. When one weighs up the benefits of outdoor learning against the limitations of classroom learning, the gap is immeasurable.

We are lucky at Oakridge that the school is committed to ensuring the children are taught a creative curriculum that utilises the local environment as much as possible, but we are in the minority and a minority isn’t enough to create positive, lasting change. The pressure the government places on schools to force our children to read and write before they can walk results in an unrealistic approach to education. The outcome is negative learning and children lack confidence because they struggle with the workload. They ultimately switch off. The curriculum is so heavily weighted towards maths and English, there is little room for other subjects, even the ones that are in it, let alone the addition of any new ones, but we must try. The children are our greatest inspiration and it is for their benefit that we strive to make these changes.

The curriculum content for design and technology is interesting. It states that all pupils should:

“Develop the creative, technical and practical expertise needed to perform everyday tasks confidently…build and apply a repertoire of knowledge, understanding and skills in order to design and make high quality products for a wide range of users…understand and apply the principles of nutrition and learn how to cook."

There are many obvious links to the allotment here and one can think of many projects that the children have undertaken in recent months that support this topic: scarecrow building, dry stone walling and the installation of the irrigation system. What’s really interesting though, is that the majority of these activities were done so outside of school hours. The bird hides below were mainly built and constructed during gardening club, which takes place after school.

The irrigation system has been another very successful project that the children have been involved with. As part of a recent geography lesson, they learned about different rainwater harvesting systems in other countries. The class two teacher then asked them to design a system that would work on the allotment. The children did a site visit and made models and their enthusiasm was terrific to see. However, the actual installation took place after school during gardening club. The class two teacher led the session but only with a handful of the children. It was disappointing that not all the children got to enjoy helping with the installation of the very thing they designed. It’s not the teacher’s fault and it’s not the school’s fault. It screams of a curriculum that is enormously limited, and yet, within the design and technology content it states that:

“Children should select and use a range of tools and equipment to perform practical tasks, (for example, cutting, shaping, joining and finishing.)”

This sort of activity is part of the compulsory school curriculum so why is it not being taught during school hours? There simply isn’t enough time, resources or people power.

It’s left to a small group of parent volunteers to step up and fill the gap, and not all schools have those dedicated, passionate individuals. Ultimately it’s the children who miss out, especially the ones who who aren’t interested in learning about the environment; the ones who think that looking after the natural world isn’t their responsibility; the ones who think that someone else will just do it for them. They’re the ones who need educating. Not all children very much enjoy maths and English and yet they are subjected to both topics every day, five days a week. Imagine if the same importance was placed on environmental education? Imagine if children were forced to learn about nature and the wonders of their beautiful planet? How very different would their attitudes be then?

The school celebrated World Book Day by inviting an author to the allotment to share some of her stories and poems with the children. It was a wonderfully, constructive session from which weeks of learning outcomes were produced. But it was an initiative that was paid for by the PTA and From The Ground and not something that all schools could necessarily afford and that’s a question of funding.

As David Drew cited, funding cuts are a huge barrier to change, but there is good news there. The restrictions on how sports funding within schools is used is, apparently, loosening:

“The premium must be spent by schools on making additional and sustainable improvements to the provision of PE, physical activity and sport for the benefit of all pupils to encourage the development of healthy, active lifestyles.”

Healthy, active lifestyles entails a whole heap of relevant outdoor, environmental learning. Certainly Oakridge School supports that concept to the very end. The children enjoy the benefits of sports sessions at least twice weekly, with forest school activities and trips to the allotment on top of that, and the school still doesn’t use half the funding it receives. The excess frequently gets sent back as it can’t be rolled over to the next academic year: it’s a waste. People use funding as an excuse; they complain of not having any money to support environmental education, but if one thought a little more creatively, they would realise that just isn’t the case. The money is there, it just isn’t being utilised as best it could be. On the allotment, the children dig, plant, grow and generally enjoy fresh air, beautiful countryside and the company of each other. If that doesn’t fall under the category of promoting a healthy and active lifestyle, what does? Our children are bright, little beacons who thrive when given purposeful, hands on learning. Funding could be spent on acquiring allotment plots, developing existing areas within school grounds or paying for workshops from local environmental groups. Much more could be done to change attitudes.

The photo below is a wonderful example of the positive effects of outdoor education: team work, resilience, (we all love a bit of rain), hard work and perseverance. Just delightful to see.

There shouldn’t be opposition to promoting positive attitudes about our environment and encouraging enthusiasm within our children. It is our responsibility to ensure they receive a comprehensive education about the subject because our children hold the future of the planet in their hands. If they don’t understand why it’s important to look after it, then who is going to care?

One wants to see explicit reference to environmental education within the national curriculum: it needs to be prioritised. It needs to teach our children about the importance of valuing their planet and the things living on it: there is no subject more important. Imagine a world where generations of children are being educated about how to live sustainably, the importance of living resourcefully, the beauty in nature and the concept of conservation? There could be generations upon generations of young people aspiring to be environmentalists, ecologists and conservationists. Imagine the difference that could make to our planet?

So lets’ break down the barriers to change, put two fingers up to the rules and unite together to make a change for our children’s future. We want to be confident that our children are being armed with the knowledge they need to look after their planet and the understanding that it is their responsibility. As David Drew pointed out, change is happening in some schools, but it's not enough. It needs to come from central government. Education is the key and it has to be enforced from the top. Yes it’s an already very busy curriculum but room has to be made. No question.

Oakridge School and From The Ground are two united organisations made up of a committed bunch of individuals who all have one common purpose in mind: to provide something better for their children. Together, to date, the school has raised over £1000 with a further £500 coming from Learning Through Landscapes. With great thought, commitment and determination, much can be achieved for the better good of the children and our planet. It’s just small steps, but it’s large leaps in terms of how the children view the environment and their love of the natural world.

From The Ground doesn’t have a background in education or the environment but we do possess great tenacity, passion and determination; the biggest motivator is our children. With the appointment of the new head teacher, there are are great hopes that connections can be forged between local schools to create a labyrinth of green pockets and spaces, giving nature, and children, the opportunity to flourish: lets not limit it to just Oakridge. There are many schools all within close proximity of each other that can mutually benefit from cross curricular lessons. Let the children share ideas, seed swap and chat about nature and why they love it. Let’s spread the word about the importance of environmental education and in so doing let playgrounds come alive with positive mindsets that not only enjoy the beauty that nature brings, but more importantly respect it. Now that’s a lesson worth learning about.