After 50 Years of environmental education, what now? was the title of an address to the 2021 NAEE AGM by Prof. Justin Dillon, President of NAEE. What follows is Justin’s write up of his talk incorporating a critique of the DfE’s recently-published draft strategy document into his input. Justin suggests a practical and positive way forward for NAEE over the short to medium term, whilst making the point that it’s education itself that needs reform.
I don’t want to look too far forward because there are too many unknowns and because it’s the next year or two that I think will be particularly critical to environmental education – certainly in the UK.
“Education is critical to fighting climate change. We have both the responsibility and privilege of educating and preparing young people for a changing world – ensuring they are equipped with the right knowledge, understanding and skills to meet their biggest challenge head on.”
Those aren’t my words, they are taken from the Foreword to the recently launched Department for Education (DfE) document entitled Sustainability and Climate Change: A draft strategy for the education & children’s services systems. While I doubt that they were actually written by the recently appointed Secretary of State for Education, The Rt Hon Nadhim Zahawi MP, they are credited to him and they set the tone for an important and document that was launched during COP26.
Zahawi notes that the Government is “taking urgent action to co-ordinate activity to respond and adapt to the effects of climate change”. Perhaps if they had listened to NAEE and many other groups and individuals some years ago we would not be needing to act in such a last minute fashion? Nevertheless, better late than never.
Early in 2021, the DfE set up a Sustainability and Climate Change Unit which was partly in response to growing pressure from young people fed up with what they perceived as an inadequate education in issues fundamental to their lives and to the environment. The strategy has emerged from this Unit and I have been asked by the DfE to join a follow-up working group on climate change education.
The strategy, which seems quite well joined up, has four central themes: Education; Green skills & jobs; Learning from and connecting with nature, and, Buildings. Encouragingly, the DfE wants more opportunities for children and young people to spend time in nature. It doesn’t just want them to know more, but to “become actively involved in the improvement of their local environment”. The Department wants organisations in the sector to collaborate – the Holy Grail of environmental education that always seems so difficult to achieve. Even more encouragingly, the strategy notes that improving the sustainability of the school estate could positively influence and inspire local communities, levering change across the nation.
Fundamentally, the strategy is to get more children outside so that they can improve the local school grounds and, thus, benefit biodiversity. The two “linked initiatives that bring together activity to drive the strategic aims” are a virtual National Education Nature Park and a Climate Leaders Award. Schools will be able to interact with an online system that will allow them to map their local environment and record the changes that they make and the subsequent impacts. Pupils that do take part will build up credits towards their award.
The Education theme of the strategy has four aspects that NAEE can support: i) curriculum change; ii) teacher professional development; iii) increased access to the natural world; and, iv) a focus on empowerment through practical action. The call to develop a Primary Science Model Curriculum, “to include an emphasis on nature and the recognition of species – including species native to the United Kingdom – to ensure all children understand the world around them” is one that NAEE and partner organisations should respond enthusiastically. The curious highlighting of native species is rather crude and let’s hope we go beyond simply resurrecting the (British) nature table in every classroom.
NAEE has a history of campaigning for environmental education and exemplifying good practice. If ever there was a window of opportunity for NAEE it is now and I suggest that our priorities should be:
1. To do all that we can to ensure that the sector works together more effectively;
2. To shift the emphasis of our activity rather more towards teachers and school leaders;
3. To focus more on longer term projects that bridge the space between schools and communities – from citizen science to citizen sustainability projects;
4. To actively listen to young people more than we have in the past. It is crystal clear that large numbers of young people are frustrated with the lack of action on climate change and other issues;
5. To broaden the debate beyond climate change to biodiversity loss, water and food security, poverty, etc.
The world’s largest survey of public opinion (the “People’s Climate Vote” which involved 1.2 million respondents) found that younger people (under 18) were more likely to say climate change is an emergency than older people. Nevertheless, other age groups were not far behind, with 65% of those aged 18-35, 66% aged 36-59 and 58% of those over 60, illustrating how widely held this view has become. NAEE has an important role to help address the emergency.
But we do need to recognise that the education system has clearly failed. It’s failed to educate people about how science works and about how scientists build knowledge. It’s failed to make the public sceptical of fake news and disinformation. It’s failed to educate people about basic scientific facts. It’s failed to educate politicians to do what is right. It’s all very well saying that “Education is critical to fighting climate change”, but the evidence suggest that we need a radical rethink about education – about what we teach, how we teach it, and first and foremost, what is the purpose of education. And we need to do that sooner rather than later.
Justin can be contacted at: J.S.Dillon@exeter.ac.uk Another presentation at the AGM was by NAEE Chair of Trustees, William Scott, whose presentation can be read on his blog.