If you're an optimistic, glass-half-full sort of person, you might be tempted to think that this is an unusually bright time for environmental education in England despite the gloom of two recent reports from King's College London, and the fact that schools are not exactly encouraged to do very much by official curriculum documents. A bright time, that is, provided you see all the recent publicity about climate change and the ecological problems we face as environmental education activity.
There is certainly a lot going on:
- The school student strikes organised by UKSCN – a smart outfit who are co-ordinating action again on May 24th. UKSCN was set up by a small group of volunteers that were inspired by the powerful and direct protests made by young people against climate inaction across the rest of Europe particularly Greta Thunberg. They aim to radically reform the role and power of young people in national action against climate change.
- the protests by groups of students such as those at Cheney School, Oxford whose petition for more climate change education has more than 71,000 signatures. The four 15 year old school students are deeply concerned about the damage we’re doing to the planet and how it will affect our futures. They say that climate change is the biggest issue of our time, and it must be a part of our education if their generation is to understand it and help to combat its effects.
- the Cumbria climate education summit organised by Graham Frost, Head of Robert Ferguson primary school, and his students. Frost, who takes an action competence approach, writes: "Educating young people about democracy is a statutory requirement. As a nation we have very high expectations about educational standards in terms of communication and understanding, discussion and debate, but we should also be facilitating an audience for our increasingly informed and articulate young people. To equip them with knowledge, but none of the empowerment necessary to act on that knowledge is a dereliction of duty. What I am proposing here is that educators use their obligations as the key to providing young people with an appropriate audience."
- the XR protests and the activities of its education group that offer some of the most interesting action in the country that I’ve seen for a while.
- the Green Schools Project whose mission is to enable young people to fulfil their potential by providing resources and support to schools to engage them in environmental projects, building their skills and aspirations while encouraging them, their community and wider society to live in a more sustainable way. Together with the admirable NUS sustainability team, the Green Schools Project surveyed and reported on school students' encouraging views on environmental sustainability where "85% agree that all schools and colleges should be encouraging and helping "pupils like me" to do things to help the environment".
- all those thousands of teachers across the land who work away in schools despite the constraints of a narrow reading of the national curriculum (see these reports from NAEE that show the opportunities for this). Many do so out of conviction rather than because it's a school priority. No one knows how many there are or what they do.
- the thousands of environmental education flowers cultivated (but not co-ordinated) by NGOs and other groups in their individual gardens. Though too numerous to list, they are an unorganised patchwork of individual effort.
- even the teacher unions are getting involved, although the jury is out on how effective they will be.
As I have noted before, I also feel that the government thinks it's done enough in another sense as well. Whilst environmental educators might really want to believe their own rhetoric that it's education in general (and environmental education in particular) that will save the world, government doesn't. It thinks that this will be done by government, treaties, business, technology, innovation, enterprise, agencies, think tanks, trade, aid, etc where there are no children in sight. Because of this it's happy with a pared-down curriculum offering and won't be changing the 2002 education act anytime soon. The Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds reiterated this view recently when responding to the proposals of the school strikers: they should stay in school and learn what is good for them (and for the country), he said. Listen to wise elders, he implied.
But government might change something else, I suppose. I understand that the leadership of UKSCN are to meet Secretary of State for Environment Michael Gove at some time over the summer to see what can be done. I expect something to be conjured up as the government is desperate to show that it takes young people seriously – but we'll have to wait and see. Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said that he understood young people because he had grown up with them. None of today's politicians seem to have done that.
My last point is that none of this is being led by established environmental education organisations. Is this why it seems to have caught the mood?