My LEEF conference responses

Posted in: Talks and Presentations

As I noted on Thursday last, the text in bold on this page are the questions that the panel at the LEEF conference will be responding to.  I've set out here what I'll try to remember to say, although I tend to get carried away on these occasions ...

1. If you had to nominate a couple of environmental education "giants" in the UK, who would they be and why?  

John Smyth co-wrote the first internationally accepted definition of environmental education that was agreed at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) conference in Nevada in 1970.  He was a member of the UK delegations to the first Unesco inter-governmental conference on environmental education in Tbilisi in 1977.  John was committed to the evolution of environmental education, and he guided the UK’s input to the world summits on sustainable development in 1992 and 2002.

Sean Carson was the driving force behind the creation of the first A level in Environmental Studies in the 1970s.  He edited NAEE's journal (Environmental Education) in the 1970s and Environmental Education principles and practice in 1978.  He was a withering critic of the Department of Education (and Science) at the time noting that it:

"claimed to have been encouraging environmental education all along – while taking care to absolve itself from any obligation to give any leadership in the future."

Something which remains true 40 years on.  He had a way with words and I'd like to have known him.


2. Is there any substantive difference between urban environmental education and environmental education in general?

There was, originally.  Urban environmental education (it was called urban studies) first began with Patrick Geddes in the late 1800s in Edinburgh, and was eventually more fully developed in the 1970s.  The Town and Country Planning Association's Education Unit was set up in 1973, and its Bulletin of Environmental Education [BEE] promoted urban environmental studies programmes.  Colin Ward (another giant) was its founder-editor.  The Council for Urban Studies Centres was formed in 1974 to encourage the setting up of field studies centres in urban areas.  The Schools Council's Geography and the Young School Leaver Project was very influential in helping urban studies to develop.

As Nick Jones has noted, if the focus of environmental education can be seen as the problems caused to the environment (the natural world) by people, then the focus of urban studies, can be seen as the problems caused to people by their environment (where they live or work).  Perhaps, these different perspectives have now been brought together in the sustainable development goals with climate change and what to do about it as a common concern.


3. Have Greta Thunberg, the student climate strikers and Extinction Rebellion done more to raise public awareness about environmental issues than environmental educators ever did?

This is an obvious claim to make, and I may even have done so myself.  However, it is too easy, perhaps, to overstate the impacts of Thunberg, the UKSCN, XR, David Attenborough, Chris Packham, et al..  In a very recent Ipsos Mori poll 75% of people in the UK say they are concerned about harm to the environment, and 78% say we're heading for disaster unless we change our ways.  This is up from 53% in 2013.

However, when you ask people what the biggest problem facing the UK is now, although climate change & environment feature in the top ten, they are a long way behind Brexit and the NHS, and they compete with crime, immigration, housing and education for attention.

It also seems that climate tends to be a middle-class concern; other people have more pressing issues in their lives.  This is perhaps the main point; attention will really be focused when we have to do something obvious and difficult about climate change.  Up to now policy has advanced by small steps and also by stealth.


4. If there ever was a high point for environmental education in England, when was it?

For me, this was the 1970s.  As evidence I'd just cite:

– Degree courses in environmental science / studies grew in number in response to growing international concern.

– School exam syllabuses at age 16 and 18 were created to give students the opportunity to study environmental issues; teacher education programmes were also set up.

– The Schools Council Project Environment began, and the National Association for Outdoor Education was set up.

– The National Association for Environmental Education was formed (the Council for Environmental Education already existed).

– The Town and Country Planning Association Education Unit was set up, and the Council for Urban Studies Centres and the National Association for Urban Studies were formed.  Colin Ward published The Child in the City in 1979 which was a sequel to Streetwork: the exploding school.

– HMI published Curriculum 11-16: supplementary working papers in 1979.  This said that environmental education “is to be regarded as a function of the whole curriculum, formal and informal … furthered through established subjects and by courses in environmental science and environmental studies which in varying degree are interdisciplinary.

– Then there was the iconic Tbilisi inter-government conference and the 1977 Tbilisi Declaration which proved a strong influence on international environmental education.


5. Can, and should, EE move from the 3rd-sector fringes into mainstream education?  With the current climate of limited funding, how do we ensure collaboration between organisations rather than competition?

Impossible, I'd say, unless there is a fundamental shift engineered by legislation and a massive funding for teacher professional and school development.

As for collaboration and competition, well these both exit today in environmental education in the UK and elsewhere.  Anyway, there will always be collaboration and competition given that they are innate human traits, even when governments actively try to prevent or promote one or the other.  Or so history suggests.  Are individuals better at collaboration than organisations?  Some, perhaps.


6. How do we make urban environmental education more diverse and representative?

By involving every community and targeting specific groups.


7. What does the next 30 years hold for EE and what role will LEEF play in this?

Personally, I hope that by 2050 we'll have stopped talking about environmental education.  I certainly will have.

Posted in: Talks and Presentations


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