“Surely we have a
responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy and
habitable by all species”
Sir David

“Students need to learn what moral
systems are so that they understand what makes a good society.”
Charles Saylan Executive Director of Ocean
Conservation Society and writer of ‘The
Failure of Environmental Education’

Over recent years we have witnessed a quiet revolution
in our schools by getting more and more children to engage with nature and the
great outdoors. Many schools now have
their forest schools or nature reserves which have contributed to their wider
development. Teachers are more aware of environmental issues and have included
them as the subject of debates and school talks. Biology and Geography, in
particular, have included more conservation and environmental issues in their
teaching and schools have increased the number of vegetable patches, wildflower
areas, greenhouses, ponds and set up very successful recycling schemes. The
Green Flag programme, the Sustainable
Schools Alliance, Eco schools , even the BSA scheme to plant a tree at every
boarding school help, as do in-house projects to collect waste plastic and
reduce energy and our carbon footprint. We now have an army of motivated
eco-warriors who have responded with the energy and optimism of youth to calls
to save their planet without being given the scientific knowledge to really
understand what is happening.

It is the adult world in which sustainability is seen
as a throw back to the hippie counterculture or an encroachment on free market
forces that has let them down. Economics, for instance, is still being taught
without an acknowledgement of the effects on the environment in which we work, including
the ozone layer, biodiversity loss,
ocean acidification – the doughnut of
social and planetary boundaries that will revolutionise the way we teach; and
while Geography in senior schools at least has expanded its curriculum to take
on more environmental studies and the importance of sustainability, at the age
when we should be developing the habit and culture of learning about the
environment, at KS 1 – KS3 there is no explicit content in the curriculum to
address such shortcomings. For too long, conservation and environmental issues
like climate change have been the preserve of fringe groups and activists and yet
unless we put the topics at the centre of the curriculum, nothing will change.
Walking round schools you will see brilliant work that pupils are doing on the environment. The will and interest are
clearly there on the part of the children, but attitudes and teaching about
sustainability and conservation needs to be embedded into schools and the
school curriculum, not left on the
periphery, reliant on the interest that may – or may not – be shown by members
of staff. What is the point of teaching
about glaciation if glaciers are disappearing? Or species that will be extinct
before they become the subject of an examination? Or our oceans unless we
preserve them? It is the challenges of
the environment and sustainability that is occupying us and this should be
reflected in our curriculum.

Make no mistake, this young generation are brilliant
at seeing the importance of recycling and conservation, and I suspect they are
leading their parents at home in regards ethical behaviour about waste and
conservation. Parents, of course, can be the best (or worst) role models for
their own children and can do a great deal by talking up recycling, the joy of
growing their vegetables and introducing their children to nature. There are so many exciting things that you
can do with your children at home, including recycling clothes and toys,
growing flowers and vegetables, experimenting with insulation, generating power
(solar panels and wind power), reducing electricity / oil / gas usage,
conserving water; even helping with grocery shopping, a task fraught with
danger from avaricious front shop counters, is worth the risk as is getting
them involved in reading the fine print on packaging, or in the palm oil debate
and the dialogue on climate change. There is also scope for children to use
their own technology if they are still interested in such things, to identify
trees and flowers, take surveys or photographic records or to set up their own
studies, if they have the right sort of encouragement.

Many of these tasks will have their own intrinsic
benefits at home, especially if the family fuel bill falls, but more important
they will galvanise children and pique their interest in the wider world and
even turn them into responsible citizens who see all animals as sentient beings
inhabiting an inter-dependent world.

It is the schools, however, that need to take the
lead, in regards the imparting of empirical knowledge and for planting the
seed. Sustainability and conservation
have to be prescribed and become an implicit part of the education to have any
lasting success. Children are great in joining in with research and such
organisations as the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) are involving
some of our children in cutting edge research on earth observations and our
carbon footprint, but we cannot just rely on a few teachers who may be
committed to such issues in every school.
The curriculum needs to change in order to avert a growing crisis on
land and in our oceans, to reverse the rate of extinction and reduce man-made
pollution – that is our challenge.

This is no easy task. At a time when children are
being pushed through hoops, defined by the data they have generated in their
short lives, conservation, environmentalism, sustainability remain a bolt-on,
dealt with effectively enough in clubs, assemblies and talks, but not placed at
the heart of learning. We need to look
at how we can influence the curriculum at a very young age so that the ethics
of one of the most important issues facing this planet underpins the knowledge
that follows.

In the south-west I have been involved in the setting
up of a new charity www.operationfuturehope which has been established with the
primary goal of educating our children about conservation and environmental
issues. The website provides a stark reminder of the threats facing our planet,
but also provides ways for schools to help young people address them. For we
cannot ignore the threats facing our planet any longer.