DEFRA, with the DfE and Natural England, have now launched their Children and Nature Programme. This will start in 2019 and end by spring 2023. It sets out to deliver actions that they have committed to in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan (published in January 2018).
A key commitment of the Environment Plan is to encourage children to be close to nature, in and out of school. DEFRA says that …
“the Plan recognises that playing and learning outside is a fundamental part of childhood and supports children’s mental health and wellbeing. It also highlights that some children have good access to natural spaces whilst others do not, such as those living in areas of high disadvantage.”
In order to address these issues, the Children and Nature Programme aims to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds to have better access to natural environments by means of three projects.
The key commitments within the programme are:
- Providing support for schools in our most disadvantaged areas that wish to create nature friendly grounds and to design and run activities that support pupil’s health and wellbeing through contact with nature.
- Making it easier for schools and Pupil Referral Units to take pupils on trips to natural spaces on a regular basis where they can combine learning with feeling healthier and happier.
- Supporting the expansion of school outreach activities delivered by community forests.
- Supporting a national expansion of care farming by 2023, trebling the number of places to 1.3m per year for children and adults in England.
The funding comes from the Department for Education as the programme supports the DfE vision to provide world-class education, training and care for everyone, whatever your background.
DfE says that by increasing the time children spend in nature, the programme contributes towards its core principle of ensuring education builds character, resilience and well-being, including the Department’s ambition to do more to understand the drivers of happiness and well-being and support work on mental health. By seeking to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged, the programme supports the Department’s principle of ‘prioritising in all we do the people and places left behind, the most disadvantaged.’
That said, DEFRA is at pains to point out that, in line with the DfE’s “vision of institutional autonomy”, participation in all projects in the programme will be completely optional for schools. This is the standard DfE line which excuses it from having to consider primary legislation whilst shouting about its values.
So, what do you make of this?
Excellent news, do you think? Certainly, if you’re an environmental NGO in line for some of the cash, you’ll likely be thrilled, even though it’s optional for schools and mostly focused on happiness than the environment. Some, however, who keep an eye on what’s going on across the world will surely wonder why there is no mention of the sustainable development goals (the delivery of which the government has signed up to). Is this an oversight or a deliberate distancing? Some will also probably worry that there are so few mentions of learning, and that where it does crop up, it’s in terms of learning in (eg, the outdoors / nature) as opposed to any focus on learning what.
Others will note that the programme, in its focus on individual, family and community health and happiness, fails to focus on broader questions about how the biosphere supports human health and well-being in a fundamental sense – and many of these will likely be aghast that there’s no mention of climate change in the documentation.
Others will deprecate the absence of a focus on issues such as the following:
- the finer points of ecology
- the effects of climate change on biodiversity
- the malign effects of intensive farming on wildlife populations
- how government transport policies encourage poor air quality and increase the chances of dementia and an early death
- encouraging practical monitoring and research skills applicable to the natural world
- badgers, cows and TB and the efficacy of culling
- the pros and cons of GMO technology for feeding the 10 billion
- recasting the egregious CAP
- the (dis)benefits of rewilding
- etc ...
None of these are important it would seem. The programme is there just to help young people, especially disadvantaged ones, feel better. I have, of course, nothing against every child being fit and feeling good, and do wish that more of the UK’s health budget could be aimed at promoting well-being as opposed to waiting until there are problems to fix.
However, this is DfE money not Public Health England’s, and you’d might think it might be more appropriately focused. All very postmodern. So much for the environment; so much for education. If you're so minded, now’s the time to shed the next tear for environmental education.