“We must have a curriculum role, or we have nothing.”

NAEE is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year to mark its foundation in September 1971.  The background to this was the growth throughout the 1960s of an interest in what quickly became known as “the environment”.  The most significant educational aspect of this was the 1965 Keele conference that recommended that environmental education ought to become an essential part of education programmes to ensure that everyone had an understanding of the environment, and to promote a scientifically literate society.  The Plowden Report in 1967 re-confirmed the value of the environment in the education of young children, and the Council for Environmental Education [CEE] and the Society of Environmental Education [SEE] were each formed in 1968.

Some think our history should really be dated from 1960 when local and regional groups first came together to promote rural studies and natural history teaching in schools through the National Rural Studies Association [NRSA].  However, the growth of “the environment” as a concern, caused this to evolve into the National Rural and Environmental Studies Association [NRESA] which then quickly dropped the rural, swopped studies for education, and became NAEE.  Arguing for the shift to NAEE, in the final NRESA journal Philip Neal wrote: “We are the association of teachers concerned with the environment – let us state this quite clearly. … Direct from the Department of Education and Science we are assured that our Association is held to be the authoritative voice in environmental matters.” 

In the intervening 50 years NAEE has been both an active contributor to developments and a chronicler of events through its journal, Environmental Education, its newsletters to members and its wider publications.  In what follows, I look back through this literature to highlight a few of the significant contributions that NAEE made up to the millennium.

Exams – As well giving rise to novel degree courses, the growing social interest in the environment saw the development of innovative school syllabuses at age 16 and 18.  These were termed environmental studies or environmental science depending on how they fitted examination regulations.  A pioneering A-level syllabus was developed by Hertfordshire teachers.  This took an interdisciplinary approach and encouraged students to examine the ecological inter-relatedness of the environment, the place of humans in it, and their impact on it.  The first examination took place in 1973, and the story of its creation was set out by Sean Carson, an advisor in Hertfordshire and a key player in NAEE, in a book.  This is available c/o ERIC [Ref 2] Carson wrote that it was the reluctance of science and geography subject leaders to include environmental issues that resulted in the creation of separate examination courses.  The outcome was that environmental issues became pushed to the margins of the curriculum, a problem which we see to this day.

Aims & Objectives – In 1976, NAEE published A Statement of Aims which set out learning targets for all school age groupings.  As Stephen Sterling (1992) noted: “this performed the important service of tying down the loftier ideals of earlier international documents”. In the Foreword to the second edition in 1982, NAEE President, Lady Bowes Lyon, wrote that the first edition: “has been recognised as the only definitive statement of aims and objectives in this curriculum area to be produced.  It has been used widely in the production of guidelines for primary education and in establishing examination syllabuses at the secondary level.”  It was also quoted extensively by many organisations including the Department of Education and Science [DES].  HMI, for example, quoted from it in reports written in the earlier 1980s of surveys they carried out in Derbyshire, Sheffield and Manchester.

Tbilisi – All delegates to the 1977 world environmental education conference in Tbilisi received a pack of materials on Environmental Education in the UK from the DES.  Sterling notes that these had been “largely ghost-written” by members of NAEE and CEE.  They included the NAEE Statement of Aims which had international reach as a result.  The Tbilisi Declaration was taken note of in the UK, as the December 1979 edition of NAEE’s journal [Vol 11] illustrated.  This carried a 5-page article about the HMI paper: Curriculum 11-16: supplementary working papers which illustrated the pre-Ofsted HMI’s extensive interest in environmental education through the 1970s and ‘80s.  The NAEE statement was explicitly referenced by HMI, as were influential UK documents by NAEE insiders such as Keith Wheeler and Sean Carson.

The National Curriculum – The anxiety felt by NAEE over the prescriptiveness and subject-focus of the national curriculum [Ref 5] consultation documents, was clear from Cyril Jennings’ Chair’s address at the 1987 AGM (reported in Newsletter 50).  There had been no mention of environmental education despite its intrinsic value to the curriculum as it did not have the status of being a proper subject.  Colin Harris, the editor of Environmental Education, noted in his Vol 27 editorial, “We must have a curriculum role or we have nothing.”  In his comments in the same volume, Philip Neal, NAEE general secretary, expanded on this concern providing details of the feedback he had provided on behalf of the Association.  CEE and NAEE sponsored amendments to the legislation to ensure the inclusion of environmental education, but these were not successful.  A particular worry for NAEE was the requirement to write attainment targets for a cross-curricular experience when doing so was so difficult.

Curriculum Guidance 7 – There are still arguments about whether the designation of environmental education as a national curriculum cross-curricular theme was a triumph for the movement, or merely a consolation prize that didn’t change anything very much. Of course, environmental education had been a cross-curriculum reality long before the phrase came into common use.  Philip Neal had acknowledged as much during a DES / NAEE course in 1984 (reported in the NAEE Newsletter 42 in March 1985).  Despite this, NAEE and CEE had to fight hard for environmental education to have formal status as a national (cross-) curriculum theme.  Colin Harris, writing in Vol 30 (Spring 1989) of the NAEE journal credits prime minister Thatcher’s speech [Ref 3] to the Royal Society in September 1988 as being a key factor in its acceptance.  Writing in News and Views in the same journal, Philip Neal gives Thatcher indirect credit for nudging the DES to publish (in 1989) Environmental Education 5 to 16 HMI Series: Curriculum Matters 13 [REF 1] as this surely sent a strong signal about environmental education to the National Curriculum Council.  In the next journal, Joy Palmer also pointed to an agreement by European Community education ministers on the “need to take concrete steps for the promotion of Environmental Education … throughout the Community” as a stimulus.  In the article she explored the nature of cross-curriculum themes and set out a positive case for the opportunities this brought.  At the end of all this activity, environmental education might have been “official” in Stephen Sterling’s words, but it was far from mainstream.  30 years on, and in a deepening socio-environmental crisis, it still isn’t.

The SCAA Guidelines – In 1995, the 50th edition of Environmental Education carried an article by the professional officers for geography in the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority [SCAA] explaining how recent revision to the national curriculum (based on the Dearing Review) had improved the prospects for environmental education in schools.  This had followed a positive, though qualified, appraisal in Vol 49 by Chris Gayford.  The rationale for the officers’ optimism was that “the revised Orders, providing, only a minimal framework, offer considerably more scope for schools to decide on their own priorities and give the curriculum their own distinctive flavour.”  Such a climate, they concluded “offers the opportunity for EE to thrive”.   This climate is still with us, but now we know that it also provides opportunities for EE not to thrive.

Teaching Environmental Matters – NAEE contributed to the development of the SCAA 1996 publication: Teaching Environmental Matters through the National Curriculum [TEM].  The production of this had been a commitment given at a rare joint Department of Education and Department of Environment conference the previous year at which (even more rare) both secretaries of state were present.  In the 1997 Summer edition (Vol 55) of Environmental Education Alan Reid and I argued in a review of TEM that it was in effect a rewriting of Curriculum Guidance 7.  We concluded that “schools will find the (sometimes excellent) materials difficult to use, because they contain no detail of why a particular innovation was successful.  … Without such an analytical evaluative overview, this document is unlikely to have the impact which is desired.”  So it proved.  And as for all that optimism, well, opportunity knocked but not all school doors were opened.  

There is a tide … Meanwhile a strong rip tide had been running for a while bringing the idea of sustainable development to global attention.  In England, a Sustainable Development Education Panel [Ref 4] had been formed with the remit of promoting a strategic approach to sustainable development education.  Its first report came in 1998 and promoted the idea of education for sustainable development [ESD].  The relationship of this to environmental education was unclear from the outset and, 30+ years on, remains so.  The panel brought together those from the quite separate environmental education and human development education camps.  30 years on this division remains, but the story of attempts to bridge the divide is for another day.

William Scott, University of Bath

This article was first published in Environmental Education Vol 128, the 50th anniversary edition of the journal.


Ref 1  educationengland.org.uk/documents/hmi-curricmatters/environmental.html  

Ref 2  files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED070635.pdf

Ref 3  https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/107346

Ref 4 https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20080306221400/http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/sustainable/educpanel/1998ar/ann4.htm

Ref 5  https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmchilsch/344/34405.htm

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