Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Wildlife never voted for Brexit

📥  Comment, News and Updates

As I sit here on Saturday morning mulling over the popular vote last Thursday to quit the EU, there are already stories of wildlife flexing their muscles and flapping their wings in preparation to leave a country so out of touch with globalisation and the modern world that it cannot recognise the value of migration and cultural pluralism.

It is said that the pandas in Edinburgh zoo have already asked to be sent home, that the parakeets have left London's parks, and that a disorderly queue of rodents is forming along the south coast waiting for small boats to carry them back to the embrace of EU institutions and safety – and the goldfinches that are normally in my garden have probably gone off to Spain.

But this is all surely premature.  No exit can take place before the UK government triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and, as there must be doubts as to whether it ever will, the dozen or so EU Presidents might be best advised to bide their time and do nothing to hasten a Brexit that might never take place.

Direct democratic instruments such as referenda sit uneasily in a parliamentary democracy such as the UK's.  The Brexit referendum is not legally binding, and it is the House of Commons that has to give substance to it.  Given that there is, currently, about an 80/20 split in favour of EU membership in the Commons, that is, something of an issue for those MPs who are for continued membership, especially if their electorates are also in favour of remaining.  What are they to do?  Well, follow their consciences, of course.  Tricky.

If we are to wait for a new prime minister before Article 50 is triggered, the act of triggering it would have to be in a Queen's Speech.  Surely, it is not out of the question that it would be voted down, and the government with it, leading to an election which might (or not) lead to a pro-Brexit Commons.

I think the pandas should stay where they are and also bide their time.  Meanwhile, is that a goldfinch I hear ...



The Earth still turns

📥  Comment, News and Updates

When I switched on the TV this morning (about 0400), it was obvious that, despite the wildlife vote and tendentious videos about dirty beaches, we had voted to leave the EU.  Of course, whether we actually shall is quite another matter.

I thought I'd better go for a walk to check that all was still well with the natural world, despite all the dire predictions.  Well, the sun was up, the birds were singing (rather cheerfully, I thought), the cows were contentedly chewing in the fields, the newly-minted ducks were still pottering about on the canal, and a grey heron was alert to possibilities (there are no EU fishing quotas on the Kennet & Avon), and the pyramidal orchids in the hay meadow that passes for my front lawn in summer are still doing what they do best – being just fabulous.

It would be misleading to think that all's well with the world, but equally wrong, perhaps, to be too gloomy about the future on this bright, bright, sunshiny day.


UK Education: is it fair and fit for purpose?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

This was the title of a St. George's House seminar then Tuesday which I went to by kind invitation of the NUS.   A great setting, of course, and we met in a room (the Vicar's Hall) where it seems it was "not impossible" that Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare might have both been at the same time.  Well, if so, I hope they had been better prepared for their meeting than we were.

The answer to the first question is, of course "No", but then unfairness seems to be built into the human condition, unless that is, you can have control of your genes, parents, domicile, luck, etc.  Is it just? would have been a better question, but that wasn't on offer.  As it was, much time was wasted by the bien-peasant teachers present railing against the existence of independent schools – as if anything could be done about that, save, making all schools independent of government orthodoxies and political prejudice, of course.

Fit for purpose is a different matter, and is much the more important issue.  Indeed that was why I went, thinking that we might get the chance to explore how children / schools / the curriculum could be helped to face up to existential issues such as climate change, the challenge offered by the sustainable development goals, and the fact that the rest of the world exists.  No chance; too many people were fixated by the problems of teacher supply about which "something needs to be done" (again!), and by teacher training more generally, or by disagreements over how good / bad Finnish schools have now become.  It would be easy to blame the rather self-indulgent co-ordinator for all this, as he just followed where most people wanted to go (apart from reading some very dodgy verse – which he thought was edgy) in the lunch break.

Here are the highlights:

  • the deranged woman who thought we'd need to wait 500 years before we could know climate change was real
  • the recruiter for a top finance firm who had given up recruiting from Russell Group universities because he could not guarantee quality
  • the independent school bloke who spoke up for the needs of the neglected social classes C D&E.  His point was that their parents need help to help their children and he focused on interesting maintained sector attempts to do that – a point echoed by the Head of Ofsted in a recent speech

That wasn't much to show for a day, but happily was ...

  • great conversations with the NUS
  • finding that the admirable Tim Oates has written on Finland and the ...
  • Born to Learn animations which I shall be recommending to the (equally admirable) parents of my grandchildren.

Not an entirely wasted day, then.


A two orchid summer after all

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Two years ago, two pyramidal orchids popped up in the meadow which takes over my front lawn every summer.  Last year, there was no sign of them.

This year they are back, and I did not notice their growing.  I had given up hope of seeing them again as the usually large numbers of ox-eye daisies that usually dominate the meadow had not turned up either, except as a trickle.  I put it down to the weather in March / April / May (rather than to climate change).

So, something of an equilibrium is restored in my head at least.  All cannot be so bad if it's a two orchid summer, and there's the bonus that I can gaze on them without spending a drop of carbon.



HEFCE’s Sustainable Development framework

📥  Comment, News and Updates

"What's happened to HEFCE’s Sustainable Development framework that they consulted on 18 months ago", I hear you ask.  Well, gathering dust, of course, electronically speaking.

There are, however, rumours that HEFCE top brass may well be thinking about whether to start thinking about whether to think about sustainability again sometime soon – but if so it will probably just to put it out of its misery.  Here's what I said when the draft framework was published.


The road to serfdom

📥  Uncategorized

Last week, The Guardian carried an article by Peter Scott (no relation) with the title: This bad bill will put universities on the road to serfdom.  

It begins:

"The government’s argument that its new higher education bill will give legal backing to both academic freedom and institutional autonomy, as well as supporting research, needs to be treated with caution and a good dose of cynicism.  Many parliamentary bills read like Soviet-era diktats.  In clause piled on sub-clause, secretaries of state give themselves powers that they claim (and may even believe) they do not really want and will hardly ever use.  Even by these low standards, the present bill is a shocker.  Does the secretary of state really need powers of “entry and search”?"

I am always amazed that parliament allows governments (of all stripes) to ram bills full of powers that someone may need in the future to spare them the trouble of having to go back to MPs for approval.  It is as if the Monarch and the Privy Council [PC] had never evolved into anything more subtle and democratic.  Mind you, the Cabinet is only really a sub-committee of the PC so perhaps we should not be surprised.

Scott says that:

"Buried under this mound of new regulatory powers are a few limp restrictions intended to protect academic freedom and institutional autonomy.  But the whole thrust is to do precisely the opposite by making universities more accountable – to students notionally, but really to politicians.  With the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework a new tyranny of metrics is actively being prepared.

Indeed, and would you trust the new-style HEFCE with any of this when conflicts of interest are built into its remit?  I think not.  It won't be spending much time speaking truth to power.

Let us hope that some backbone in to be found in the House of Lords to prevent at least some of this degrading, egregious, meretricious nonsense passing into law.


Do we need to learn to be more welcoming of nature's migrants?

📥  Comment, New Publications

The current migration of people into Europe from North Africa, the Middle East, and farther afield because of war and other social turmoil has already been linked to climate change – not only because this has been seen as a contributor to the conflicts within Syria, but also in the sense that what we are seeing now is likely to be a harbinger of things to come as the world warms further and greater numbers of people will seek more hospitable (in every sense) places to live.

Migration applies not just to people, but to nature more generally, and a new report from the RSPB: ‘The Nature of Climate Change – Europe's wildlife at risk’ explores the issues. This is part of Mike Clarke's introduction which lays out the issue clearly:

“We are at a point in recent geological history where the rate of human-induced climate change will far outstrip the ability of species to adapt successfully, especially when the resilience of nature has been reduced by habitat loss, non-native species introductions and over-exploitation. The disruption to the web of life is a threat not just to wildlife, but to the lives of people around the world.”

The report sets out evidence that wildlife of all kinds will be challenged because of climate change, and it says that protected areas and nature reserves will be vital in helping wildlife cope with a changing climate, which is something that many UK wildlife charities will agree with.  For UK birds, for example, higher rainfall will adversely affect bearded tits, capercaillie and shags, and warmer temperatures in southern Europe will result in habitat loss for Dartford warblers.  But Clarke says that it’s not all bad news from the RSPB perspective, as new bird species have begun breeding here, such as little egrets, black-winged stilts and little bitterns.

Clarke also raises the issue of whether we need to be both less precious about the idea of native, and much more welcoming of nature's migrants:

"The wildlife we typically accept as being part of our ‘native’ flora and fauna is moving, and new species are arriving as colonists, partly driven by climate change.  The assemblage of species we consider ‘native’ is therefore in a state of flux.  We cannot arrest the changes, so to aid adaptation it will be important to enable species to colonise new areas via provision of sufficient, suitably-protected habitat, in areas that will become more climatically suitable over time."

This idea is also part of what Fred Pearce argues in his book ‘The New Wild: why invasive species will be nature's salvation’.  Pearce says that keeping out non-native species looks increasingly flawed as a strategy and that we should celebrate their dynamism and the novel ecosystems they create.  Pearce thinks that, in an era of climate change and widespread ecological damage, we should be finding ways to help nature regenerate, and that embracing this 'new wild' is our best chance.

Clearly, not everyone will agree with this open, liberal approach, and there are other, considered points of view.  In all this, it’s necessary, perhaps, to distinguish between the invasive, and the merely non-native: that is, between those species that are here causing trouble, and those that are just here.  Invasive species can be plants, animals, or other groups such as fungi or algae that cause disease or pest problems, and the RHS says that, after habitat destruction, invasive non-native species are the most serious threat to global biodiversity.  It says that, in the UK, there are now 1402 non-native plant species, with 108 (8%) of these considered as invasive.  Internationally, the database of such troublesome species is managed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which now lists 3,163 such plants and 820 animals.  Based on this, the EU looks set to approve a list of 37 plant and animal species that member-states must eradicate where possible.  Mercifully, this does not include John Wyndham’s triffids, that ultimate invasive species.

Non-native species are those that occur outside their natural range due to direct or indirect introduction by humans, and where the introduced species persist in natural or unmanaged habitats, they are termed ‘naturalised’.  It is obvious that many naturalised species do not cause a problem; however, if they spread and out-compete native species they can threaten ecosystems, habitats, or the existence of native species themselves, and give rise to environmental damage and economic cost.  One problem is that many non-native species can take a long time to become invasive, and many of the plants now considered invasive have been growing in the UK for over 100 years without causing a problem.  Where they are a problem, however, they can be expensive to eradicate and it can take a long time: for example, at least ten years might be needed to eradicate giant hogweed, and three to four years to get rid of Japanese knotweed.  A recent Economist article: Invasive Species – day of the triffids (which surprisingly doesn't mention climate) argues for a measured and pragmatic approach to non-native species.  It quotes Chris Thomas, a biologist at the University of York, who has calculated that of the UK’s 677 most widespread plant species, 68 were introduced by humans before 1500 and another 56 after that date, with not one of these introduced species ranking among the 50 most widespread plants in the country.  Even Himalayan balsam is so rare that it barely makes the list.  This is, of course, to take a national view, whereas all politics (whether about plants or people) is local and Himalayan balsam has to be tackled wherever it is found.

As I hinted at the outset, there are some parallels in all this with the current debate about the migration of peoples, although there are clearly important differences as well.  For example, some of the language regularly used in relation to plants and animals cannot be used about people.  But it’s possible that a discussion of the migration of plants and animals, and how tolerant we should be of the benefits and problems they bring, might ease a consideration of the much more difficult topic of the immigration of people.

More information

Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Invasive non-native species

Pearce F (2015) The New Wild: why invasive species will be nature's salvation. London: Icon Books

RSPB (2015) The Nature of Climate Change – Europe's wildlife at risk

The Economist (2015) Invasive Species – day of the triffids


This article was first published in NAEE's journal Environmental Education (Vol 111); Spring 2016, as my 'President's Column'.  The views are my own, not NAEE's


Vote Remain for Nature

📥  Comment, New Publications

Vote Remain for Nature is a short, but irritating, film urging us all to vote to stay in the EU for the sake of nature.  The blurb says:

"Europe's protections keep Britain's wildlife, countryside and nature safe.  Wildlife doesn't queue up at the border with its passport.  We can only tackle these issues across borders.  On 23 June, vote remain – for nature."

Apparently, "It took a lot of hard work and fundraising to make happen."  Looking at it, that's hard to believe, unless it was expensive to ensure that the film was as tendentious and unbalanced as possible.  But, if it's mood music you like, or scare-stories in the morning, it's probably up your beach.  It's produced by Environmentalists for Europe, which is part of the European Movement.

As for me, I'm still wondering what on earth "Wildlife doesn't queue up at the border with its passport" means.  Bizarre.



📥  Comment, News and Updates

Writing something about population, I stumbled across the Worldometers website.   This has the goal of "making world statistics available in a thought-provoking and time relevant format to a wide audience around the world".

It's owned by Dadax, which says it has "no political, governmental, or corporate affiliation".  Their website is as unusual as you might hope.




Unesco and environmental education

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I have read that UNESCO's annual report for 2016 is going to be about environmental education (that is, "education for people and planet").

Of course, it rather depends what it has to say, but, taken with UNEP's recent focus on environmental education, people may begin to wonder whether the focus really has swung back, away from ESD, to where it used to be.  We shall see ...