Philip Neal

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This is a slightly edited version of the obituary which was published in Vol 98 of the NAEE journal, Environmental Education in 2011 (pages 31/32).   It is included here with the kind permission of the three original contributors: Norman Farmer, Sue Fenoughty and Nick Jones, as it paints a vivid picture of the man, NAEE, and environmental education more widely from the 1970s for the next 30 years.

Philip Neal M.A. (Ed), B.Sc, MBE was a founder member, long serving and dedicated general secretary of the National Association for Environmental Education and will be remembered by all who knew him with affection and admiration.  He will be recognised for his determination to strive within the mainstream of education to equip pupils with the environmental understanding required in a modern world.

Philip Neal was a geography teacher and then Headteacher of Perry Common Comprehensive School, Birmingham.  He took the struggling Rural Studies Association under his wing.  In the late 1960s this transformed itself into the National Rural and Environmental Studies Association and then in 1971 became the National Association for Environmental Education (NAEE).  From that time NAEE expanded its focus and influence within the liberalising educational milieu of the late 1960s and 1970s.  A committed and enthusiastic group of local authority education advisors and educationists gathered around Philip as general secretary and quietly kick started NAEE into a lively organisation with its influence reaching into those education authorities not frightened of innovation and experiment.  With Philip at the helm NAEE became a truly national organisation drawing strong support from counties such, as Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cumbria, Devon, Cornwall, Kent and Durham, and the great industrial cities including Birmingham, Sheffield and Newcastle. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland came into the fold a few years later.

Philip had the happy knack of recruiting and enabling a disparate group of educationists to serve on the executive of NAEE.  For almost thirty years a succession of older and younger men and women greatly contributed to the development of environmental education across the UK.  Many of the ‘youngsters’, as Philip occasionally referred to them, became very successful in the world of education, promoted as headteachers, education inspectors, advisory teachers, lecturers and professors.

From humble beginnings with little or no public face NAEE, with the drive and persistence of Philip, supported by the executive, expanded its membership with annual residential conferences, termly journals, and thriving local associations within the more progressive local education authorities.  The early days of NAEE’s existence preceded mobile phones, the internet and social networking so great value was put upon face-to-face meetings. Philip arranged executive meetings across the midlands first at Perry Common School, then in the potting shed of the Martineau Environmental Garden until finally establishing a headquarters at Wolverhampton University’s Walsall campus.

A series of cheaply produced but very useful, practical guides and publications were edited by Philip being free to members and sold to the public.  At a later date Philip became an editor for a publishing company of a series of books for young people on current environmental issues (Considering Conservation, Dryad Press, 1980).  Reading them again, after so many years, the issues raised in those publications are commonplace environmental concerns today.  Over the years he was author and co-author of numerous publications, many of which have stood the test of time.  He published the Handbook of Environmental Education with Joy Palmer in 1994.

Philip was tireless in promoting NAEE at first from his school at Perry Barr, Birmingham, and after his retirement as headteacher from NAEE headquarters in Walsall.  He was not afraid to extol the virtues of NAEE whatever the size or importance of the organisation he had inveigled himself into. Recognising the need for environmental organisations to cooperate and where possible work in unison.  Thanks to Philip, NAEE was one of the founder member organisations of the Council for Environmental Education (CEE).  Philip represented NAEE on the CEE council and chaired its schools and tertiary committee, later becoming a vice-president.

Philip Neal established the credentials of NAEE amongst politicians and within government, particularly with the Rev. Lord Sandford a junior education and environment minister in the Heath and Thatcher governments.  Up until the change of government, Philip managed to convince the Department of the Environment that NAEE was an organisation worth supporting with a modest grant which funded administration costs.  The withdrawal of that grant and Philip’s increasing age signalled to him it was time to pass on the baton to the next generation and he retired to rural Shropshire.

When NAEE lost this core government funding, a general meeting was called to discuss the organisation’s future.  In order to survive, a new executive was formed who agreed to carry on the work of NAEE on a voluntary basis.  Philip continued as a highly skilled editor/reporter.  His knowledge of environmental education combined with a network of influential contacts across the country meant the journals were full of stimulating articles, often featuring a particular region. Philip carried on as Editor until just ten years ago: the spring of 2001was his last journal, which had sponsorship from the University of Bath.

Philip was a liberal educator, first and foremost, he was passionate about the role of environmental education in helping young people to address local and global issues.  He was no eccentric environmentalist.  He was a suited, tie wearing head teacher with standards to match. (As one young member of the executive found out when he was spotted by Philip eating fish and chips at the rear of a key talk at the annual conference)  Beneath that surface resided a complex character working hard to influence and change from within a political and education establishment that tried to ignore the need for a genuine environmental education.  He could be forthright in argument at executive meetings when members were not being practical or pragmatic, but he held no malice and would give way when persuaded which direction was the right one to take.  Those of us who joined the executive in the early to mid 1970s, when some of the founders of NAEE such as Sean Carson were reaching the end of their tenure, soon grew to respect his tenacity and hard work. For a large part of his working life, and for most of his active retirement, Philip unstintingly devoted long hours of his time, expertise and experience to the work of NAEE Those of us who served on the executive gave as much support as we could but without Philip NAEE may well have foundered during one of its many crises, financial and otherwise.  The award of an MBE was richly deserved by a man who took for granted that service should be freely given over and above the daily grind.

Philip Neal: well remembered; much missed.


A History of Environmental Education: 21/3/6

This is the latest in a series of articles about early environmental education in the UK.  Others will appear here on a monthly basis.  You can read previous essays here:

Ten Alternative Commandments

Good grief – What a title!

Tbilisi 1977

Remembering Sean Carson

Environmental education in England 1960 to 1979 – a pen picture

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  • Good to be reminded of Philip’s key roles in the Environment movement, so basic and so important. I was just back from three years teaching in Zambia. The new NAEE was just the right outlet I needed to continue my passion for
    sharing the knowledge I’d gained on how rich and diverse the Planet is. What better way was there than through teaching our future generations to enjoy and respect its needs