Environmental Education in Derbyshire

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In early 1983, HMI published A Survey of Environmental Education in Some Derbyshire Primary Schools [ S910/7/011 143/83 DS 1982 ].  This was based on schools visits to 13 schools "of varying size, type and catchment area [which were all] ... known to be involved in environmental education and where work was based on topics and a thematic or integrated approach was being undertaken."

The report notes that HMI went to these schools because "the Derbyshire LEA has for many years been actively involved in the development of an approach in primary schools in which subject boundaries are blurred."  In 1977, the LEA had published A Derbyshire Approach to Environmental Studies which was based on the Schools Council project: History, Geography and Social Science 8–13.  This had been produced "through close comparison between advisers, heads and teachers, college lecturers, [and] national park wardens" across the county.  The purpose of the inspection was to find out "the extent to which the main aims of environmental education were being given a foundation in primary schools."

Anyone relatively new to school teaching might find aspects of this rather puzzling.  Verily, the past is a foreign country; they did do things differently there.  For example:

HMI – Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools existed as an independent organisation reporting to the Privy Council.  It lost this status in 1992 becoming part of Ofsted, and with it much of its independence.  As well as inspecting schools, HMI published reports on many aspects of curriculum; see this for details.  And not only were HMI actively interested in environmental education, they produced a number of reports specifically focusing on it.

LEAs – Not only were there local education authorities in every county or borough, many was actively involved in the development of approaches to teaching and learning.  The vast majority of  "maintained" (ie, tax-payer funded) schools were part of these LEAs and were thus influenced by local community structures and interests.  LEAs employed subject advisors who were the main communication links between schools and the LEA.  The advisors supported teachers and heads and saw their role as actively promoting the good practice that they saw.  Anyone as old as I am will remember advisors well.

Curriculum – There was no national curriculum; indeed the only legally required subject was religious education.  The 1944 Education Act devolved to LEAs responsibility for curriculum provision, and most authorities devolved it to schools (heads and governors).  In practice teachers, especially heads of department, had effective control.  There were of course exam syllabuses to light the way in secondary schools.  The result of this was that in many schools, and across most LEAs, there was much curriculum innovation with some it supported by bodies such as the Schools Council and by projects such as the Nuffield secondary science scheme.

In 1983, however, all this was on the cusp of change.  Curriculum freedoms had been under attack for some time by the authors of The Black Papers and contributors to The Great Debate, because of what was seen as a woeful drop in standards.  The autonomy of the LEAs was under pressure, especially from conservative-influenced bodies, and HMI's freedom to criticise government policy was not always seen, by those in government or their friends, as helpful.  I think that it is fair to say, however, that the ten years up to 1983 had been a good time for environmental education which thrived in a climate of experimentation and innovation.  It was so busy being innovative, however, that it neglected to edge its way into, and find a secure niche within, the mainstream.  So it was that, when the hammer blows began to fall, it found itself outside the national curriculum in the cold, and had to settle for also ran status as a cross-curricular theme.

There is another noteworthy passage in the Derbyshire report.  In section 1.2, HMI include this:

"The National Association for Environmental Education suggests that :–

"At the primary stage environmental education is seen as involving pupils in personal experience of the environment by direct exploration with all their senses, using the school and its immediate surroundings and going further afield when necessary.  Such environments will involve both the living environment in small nature reserves, school gardens, or in the countryside, and the built environment in street work.  At this stage emphasis should be placed on the development and deepening of concepts.  Teachers are expected to use these experiences to develop language in all its aspects, numeracy, scientific methods of enquiry, aesthetic appreciation and creative expression, as well as to encourage the development of value judgements and an environmental ethic.  Children at this stage should be introduced to the statutory and accepted codes of environmental behaviour".

No citation was given for this passage, but it is clear that this was the source document for "the main aims of environmental education" mentioned in the second paragraph of this post.  Its inclusion here by HMI, who were not noted for their reliance on the work of others for their ideas, is testimony to the value provided by NAEE at the time.  There are aspects of this passage about primary environmental education experience, based as it is on international documents and ideas, which has survived the past 40 years, although there might be merit in a re-interpretation for the early 21st century.

I'll end by quoting the final three sections of the report's conclusion section:

10.8 – "There was considerable evidence to show the extensive use being made of the environment by schools to enrich and enhance the curriculum.  There was a high degree of use of first hand experiences to be found in the majority of the schools and this was leading in particular to some excellent observational art work a broad variety of writing experiences including poetry.  Many children were given opportunities to observe at first hand either urban, rural, natural or man-made environments and then further opportunities to discuss their observation.  They showed the ability to debate their views and refine their opinions."

10.9 – "There was less evidence of investigations into how the environment works.  Descriptive accounts of the environment and a content approach was common but there was little evidence of a more analytical approach to extend an understanding of the links and inter-relationships within the environment."

10.10 – In general a great deal of good work in and about the environment was seen.  Awareness and skills were being developed and understanding was being extended.  Real appreciation of inter-relationships and informed debate about environmental management and issues however were less common.  All the schools might benefit from a more precise definition of the aims of environmental education leading to an appropriate amendment of their school guidelines."


A History of Environmental Education: 21 / o5 / o8

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:

Celebrating Earth Day with Philip Larkin

Philip Neal

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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  • So enjoyable and memorable and reassuring and underlining that we were on the right track. The changes and what I refer to as “Government interference” led to my retirement three years earlier than planned. The government rather than professional was controlling the curriculum rather than the profession working with them