Today’s blog is by NAEE President, Justin Dillon, Professor of Science and Environmental Education at the University of Exeter. As ever with our blogs, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the thinking of the Association.

On March 13, 2019, the day after MPs again voted down the Government’s negotiated Brexit withdrawal agreement, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced that he was commissioning a comprehensive independent review of the links between biodiversity and economic growth. The review was to be led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Cambridge.

The Dasgupta Review was published on February 2, 2021 and was unequivocal in its findings: “We have collectively failed to engage with Nature sustainably, to the extent that our demands far exceed its capacity to supply us with the goods and services we all rely on”. The solution involves a massive shift in how we organise society. The report concludes by arguing for a transformation of our education systems towards one where “children from an early age are encouraged to try to understand the infinitely beautiful tapestry of processes and forms that is Nature” through environmental education. This section of the report owes much to the thinking of Mary Colwell, the writer and journalist who is behind the proposed GCSE in Natural History.

I find it hard to imagine that such a course will ever succeed. Even if GCSEs continue to exist – and I am doubtful that they will for much longer – Biology and Geography are so well-established that a Natural History GCSE is likely to strangled at birth. Even if it survived, there’s the problem of who would teach it?

So, what is the alternative? Environmental education is more than nature study and has been for as long as I can remember. I do recall it being a cross-curricular theme back in the heady, early days of the National Curriculum. However, it soon vanished as national testing and league tables created a three-tier system with English, Mathematics and Science at the top table and cross-curricular themes sorting through the scraps and the slops.

I would argue that the pandemic has provided a sad moment of opportunity. There is a compelling argument that education has failed spectacularly. After years of schooling many of the population don’t know how viruses work or how to protect themselves from their effects. The government has had to pay for commercials explaining how to wash your hands, and far too many people do not know how to tell truth from lies. Over 140,000 people have died as a result of inadequate understanding on the part of the public, the media and politicians and that is in the UK alone. 

While COVID-19 dominates our immediate and short-term thinking, climate change continues unabated. Here too, there is incontrovertible evidence that education has failed to equip people with the knowledge, skills and commitment necessary to address the challenges we face. Young people around the world have been taking to the streets in protest at the lack of action and the lack of adequate climate change education. 

This situation is unsustainable. We need to rethink our education system and the values and priorities that underpin it. Never before has the public valued the environment and the outdoors more than it does now. Growing numbers of people appreciate what nature does for us and what we need to do for nature. We need to seize the moment and advocate for a total rethink of what we teach, why we teach and how we teach. It is as simple and as complicated as that.


We welcome comments on the issues raised in this post. If you have points for Justin, he can be contacted at:

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