“Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy and habitable by all species” Sir David Attenborough
“Students need to learn what moral systems are so that they understand what makes a good society.” Charles Saylan Executive Director of Ocean Conservation Society and writer of ‘The Failure of Environmental Education’
Over recent years we have witnessed a quiet revolution in our schools by getting more and more children to engage with nature and the great outdoors. Many schools now have their forest schools or nature reserves which have contributed to their wider development. Teachers are more aware of environmental issues and have included them as the subject of debates and school talks. Biology and Geography, in particular, have included more conservation and environmental issues in their teaching and schools have increased the number of vegetable patches, wildflower areas, greenhouses, ponds and set up very successful recycling schemes. The Green Flag programme, the Sustainable Schools Alliance, Eco schools , even the BSA scheme to plant a tree at every boarding school help, as do in-house projects to collect waste plastic and reduce energy and our carbon footprint. We now have an army of motivated eco-warriors who have responded with the energy and optimism of youth to calls to save their planet without being given the scientific knowledge to really understand what is happening.
It is the adult world in which sustainability is seen as a throw back to the hippie counterculture or an encroachment on free market forces that has let them down. Economics, for instance, is still being taught without an acknowledgement of the effects on the environment in which we work, including the ozone layer, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification - the doughnut of social and planetary boundaries that will revolutionise the way we teach; and while Geography in senior schools at least has expanded its curriculum to take on more environmental studies and the importance of sustainability, at the age when we should be developing the habit and culture of learning about the environment, at KS 1 – KS3 there is no explicit content in the curriculum to address such shortcomings. For too long, conservation and environmental issues like climate change have been the preserve of fringe groups and activists and yet unless we put the topics at the centre of the curriculum, nothing will change. Walking round schools you will see brilliant work that pupils are doing on the environment. The will and interest are clearly there on the part of the children, but attitudes and teaching about sustainability and conservation needs to be embedded into schools and the school curriculum, not left on the periphery, reliant on the interest that may – or may not – be shown by members of staff. What is the point of teaching about glaciation if glaciers are disappearing? Or species that will be extinct before they become the subject of an examination? Or our oceans unless we preserve them? It is the challenges of the environment and sustainability that is occupying us and this should be reflected in our curriculum.
Make no mistake, this young generation are brilliant at seeing the importance of recycling and conservation, and I suspect they are leading their parents at home in regards ethical behaviour about waste and conservation. Parents, of course, can be the best (or worst) role models for their own children and can do a great deal by talking up recycling, the joy of growing their vegetables and introducing their children to nature. There are so many exciting things that you can do with your children at home, including recycling clothes and toys, growing flowers and vegetables, experimenting with insulation, generating power (solar panels and wind power), reducing electricity / oil / gas usage, conserving water; even helping with grocery shopping, a task fraught with danger from avaricious front shop counters, is worth the risk as is getting them involved in reading the fine print on packaging, or in the palm oil debate and the dialogue on climate change. There is also scope for children to use their own technology if they are still interested in such things, to identify trees and flowers, take surveys or photographic records or to set up their own studies, if they have the right sort of encouragement.
Many of these tasks will have their own intrinsic benefits at home, especially if the family fuel bill falls, but more important they will galvanise children and pique their interest in the wider world and even turn them into responsible citizens who see all animals as sentient beings inhabiting an inter-dependent world.
It is the schools, however, that need to take the lead, in regards the imparting of empirical knowledge and for planting the seed. Sustainability and conservation have to be prescribed and become an implicit part of the education to have any lasting success. Children are great in joining in with research and such organisations as the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) are involving some of our children in cutting edge research on earth observations and our carbon footprint, but we cannot just rely on a few teachers who may be committed to such issues in every school. The curriculum needs to change in order to avert a growing crisis on land and in our oceans, to reverse the rate of extinction and reduce man-made pollution – that is our challenge.
This is no easy task. At a time when children are being pushed through hoops, defined by the data they have generated in their short lives, conservation, environmentalism, sustainability remain a bolt-on, dealt with effectively enough in clubs, assemblies and talks, but not placed at the heart of learning. We need to look at how we can influence the curriculum at a very young age so that the ethics of one of the most important issues facing this planet underpins the knowledge that follows.
In the south-west I have been involved in the setting up of a new charity www.operationfuturehope which has been established with the primary goal of educating our children about conservation and environmental issues. The website provides a stark reminder of the threats facing our planet, but also provides ways for schools to help young people address them. For we cannot ignore the threats facing our planet any longer.