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House of Commons Hansard
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Environmental and Food System Education
19 December 2017
Volume 633

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered environmental and food system education in schools.

My reasons for calling this debate were twofold: to highlight some of the positive work already being done in schools and to call on the Government to go further and embed some of this work in the curriculum or support it across all schools. It is so important that our young people learn about the wonders of our natural environment and our wildlife, how we should respect them and how we should take care of them for future generations. Many are also calling for animal welfare to be taught in schools. If young people were taught respect for animals at an early stage, perhaps that would make a difference with some of the horrific crimes that we see carried out against animals.

Young people should also learn about climate change, the impact our behaviour is having on the planet and how we can address that. They should learn about where our food comes from and why what we grow and eat matters. It is not just about acquiring knowledge for the sake of it; it is about children’s mental and physical wellbeing and equipping them for life as adults, enjoying nature and living sustainably. The fact is that they love learning about these things, and I will come on to that later.

The last Labour Government took environmental education seriously. In 2000, education for sustainable development was introduced as a non-statutory element of the curriculum. That was followed in 2006 by the launch of the sustainable schools strategy, which encouraged schools to follow the recommendations in the eight doorways, which were: buildings and grounds; energy and water; travel and traffic; food and drink; purchasing and waste; local wellbeing; inclusion and participation; and the global dimension. Through that, they would have become completely sustainable schools by 2020. Unfortunately, the strategy was scrapped by the Government in 2010.

In 2006, the Government launched the “Learning Outside the Classroom” manifesto, which promoted outdoor learning as an essential part of education, whether that was in school grounds and the local area or visits further afield and residential trips. The manifesto highlighted the value of hands-on, experiential learning as a way of enhancing and supporting work back in the classroom. It is a shame that the current Government have not built on that. As I said, the sustainable schools strategy was scrapped in 2010.

The environmental science and environmental and land-based science GCSEs were recently discontinued. The Government told me that was due to a lack of confidence in new content being developed, but it leaves a vacuum. The environmental studies A-level is currently at the tail end of being phased out, with the final set of exams being sat in the next six months. It will be replaced by a new environmental science A-level that started teaching this year, but the shift to stripped-back, science-only learning will deter many pupils from taking it up. Pupils have told me that is the case.

The national curriculum references the environment and climate change only in science and geography, and even then mostly in relation to the technical causes and processes, rather than the impact of climate change on individuals and communities. Key stage 3 science only includes reference to

“the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the impact on climate.”

Key stage 4 science only mentions the effects of increased greenhouse gases on the Earth’s climate system and supposed “uncertainties” in the evidence for climate change. The geography syllabus has only passing reference to the changing climate from the ice age to the present day and how human and physical processes can change the environment. The parliamentary digital engagement service put something out on Facebook and Instagram over the weekend, and people came back to say that although there is the option to study climate change in geography, it is not always taken up. Geography GCSE is optional, so young people will not necessarily learn about that aspect of the curriculum unless they are studying that GCSE and the teacher decides to focus on climate change.

The situation is piecemeal and insufficient. We are failing to teach young people about the real-world impacts of climate change or the action that can be taken to mitigate it. The previous syllabus covered environmental issues much more comprehensively, but the then Education Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, tried to remove those things from geography altogether and have them in science only and not talk about the human role. I appreciate that he would dispute that that was his role in events. The former Energy and Climate Change Secretary, the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey), who recently returned to the House, takes credit for forcing a U-turn on the then Education Secretary. I appreciate that there is some controversy, but there was a huge pushback against what were perceived to be the Education Secretary’s plans at the time, and there was a partial U-turn.

Academies and free schools are not obliged to follow the national curriculum, so they are not required to teach environmental or climate change issues at all. The London School of Economics aptly summarised this in its response to the Government’s consultation in 2013. It said that

“there can be no justification for omitting climate change from the National Curriculum, and the education of pupils would be deficient if they did not receive teaching about it…If core climate change teaching is not included as compulsory learning…there is a risk that some students would not acquire essential basic knowledge about climate change. As the UK Youth Climate Coalition points out, ‘climate change is too important to be left to individual teacher choice’.”

As the Government’s enthusiasm for environmental education has waned, many third-sector-run initiatives have risen to fill the gap. One great initiative is the Eco-Schools programme that has been run by Keep Britain Tidy for more than 25 years. It aims to help students embed sustainable development into their schools’ daily lives. In England alone, 17,000 schools are registered on the scheme. Eco-Schools is based on pupil-led, real-world learning, empowering children to create change and environmental improvements by forming eco-committees, conducting environmental reviews of the schools’ practices and drawing up environmental action plans. I have seen that in some of the schools in my constituency. The kids get really engaged in it.

Farming and Countryside Education has a countryside classroom online portal for teachers. It includes materials to allow children to discuss what they deem to be controversial issues, such as badgers, bee health, migrant labour, food waste and flooding.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the debate to the Chamber. There is a great deal of interaction through visits to farms by school pupils. I am sure she will agree that commercial farming is making a huge contribution to protecting the environment. It is important that young people understand that modern farming can play its part. Does she agree that it would be good if school pupils and university students could visit modern farms to understand that farms have moved on and are making a contribution?

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I think that is important. It is something FACE encourages. There is also the “FaceTime a farmer” scheme, which was started by Tom Martin, a Cambridgeshire farmer. It teams farmers up with schools. They use FaceTime or Skype to make video calls to classrooms. That is obviously no substitute for getting out on the farms, but it is a good initiative.

The Woodland Trust has flagged up with me that it has the free trees programme and the Green Tree School Awards. It is taking those things into schools, and they are incredibly popular. Another great initiative is the Soil Association’s Food for Life catering award for food quality, which more than 10,000 UK schools currently possess. To become accredited, the school is required to use locally sourced and seasonal produce, maintain in-school gardens and develop students’ practical green skills. It also encourages schools to visit farms. It has Grandparent Gardening Week from 19 to 23 March. It gets local allotment holders, grandparents and so on into schools to help set up school gardens for the growing season. That is a great way of engaging the community in what goes on in schools.

In Bristol, where the Soil Association is based, I went along to Bristol Metropolitan Academy, which is a secondary school. It had the local primary schools come along to take part in something that showed the circle of life of food. The younger kids turned up having grown basil in their schools. They were then shown by a food waste chef, Shane Jordan, how to cook pasta and make a sauce with the basil. The leftovers were then fed into a wormery and they were shown how that worked, which was the bit they loved, of course, with all those squirming worms coming out of the bottom of it. They were then shown how the compost for the wormery helps to grow more basil. It was brilliant to see the kids so involved and learning things about food that they had never heard before.

A project in my constituency, Growing Futures, has a campfire where kids can sit around and talk. People with mental health issues go along as well. The project is also about growing food and it teaches young children about it in a fairly informal setting. We very much want to incorporate that into the Feeding Bristol project that we are running to tackle food poverty in the city.

The Food Growing in Schools Taskforce’s March 2012 report found that green activities in schools result in

“significant learning, skills, health and well-being outcomes for children”.

Surveys conducted by the Learning through Landscapes organisation found that 73% of teachers reported improved pupil behaviour, and 64% reported reduced bullying.

Another initiative that has enjoyed huge success in the UK recently is forest schools, where young children attend lessons in woodland environments. Forest schools have flourished in Bristol. We have had one since 2004 and it has its own woodland to use for sessions. Earthwise, an organisation focused on reconnecting young people with food, farming and the natural world, runs a forest school locally and works with the community farm in Chew Magna in Somerset to deliver educational visits, seasonal cookery days and holiday activities throughout the year. I do not have time today to go into the need to teach young children how to cook the food, but that is important, too.

A report by Forest Research, “A marvellous opportunity to learn”, found that children who regularly attend forest school sessions noticeably developed in confidence and independence, with social and team-working skills, better motivation and concentration and better physical skills and fine motor skills. It is a wonderful programme.

Even small physical changes can have a huge positive impact on children. The Carnegie Mellon school reported up to 26% higher test scores in classrooms with ample natural light, with the addition of plants leading to score improvements of 14%. That seems a strange connection to make, but that was the result of its survey. The 2005 report by the National Foundation for Educational Research, “The benefits of a forest school experience”, stated:

“While watching their children explore the woodland, the parents expressed their wonder at the level of independence and confidence their children were showing”,

and would in the future encourage more freedom outdoors,

“perhaps out of sight in a secure environment, leave the busy paths and let their children lead the way.”

So it is not just something that takes place in the classroom; it is outside the classroom as well. A great quote from one forest school leader summarises this:

“Children have fun during forest school, and so the place in which they have fun becomes important to them—keeping that environment cared for matters to them.”

It has also been shown to have a particularly remarkable impact on the development of students with special educational needs.

Sulivan Primary School in Fulham maintains a reading forest for its students, where children can find books “growing” on trees and in tents, as well as a wildlife garden, pond and vegetable plot. The school describes how children with special education needs, many of whom do not normally enjoy reading, benefit from the way that being in the outdoors relieves stress and anxiety, develops their social skills, motivates learning and allows them to be practical, responsible and productive members of the school’s community.

I am aware of the time, so I will skim over this quickly. The skills, knowledge and enjoyment benefit children when they become adults, too. In 2014, Lantra estimated that there were 230,000 businesses and 1.3 million employees working in the land and environmental industries, and that many more would be required by 2020. The horticultural and agricultural sectors are currently experiencing a skills shortage. The food sector is a huge part of the economy, and innovative, value-added products are the future of that industry. Innovation is going on at Harper Adams University. We need to engage young people and get them interested in careers in that field. There is the waste sector, energy sector, many high-tech engineering jobs, and renewable energy and eco-housing sectors. There are so many things that young people could be inspired to do.

It is almost obligatory in environmental debates these days to mention “Blue Planet”. The BBC natural history unit, based in Bristol, is behind amazing series such as “Planet Earth” and “Blue Planet”. In 2012, it teamed up with the University of the West of England to co-design a masters course in wildlife filmmaking, which is certainly something for young people to aspire to. Who knows? The makers of future “Blue Planets” could be in schools just waiting to have their imaginations fired.

In conclusion, we need to go further and not simply leave initiatives to the schools that have decided to run with them. We must embed them in the curriculum across the board. It could take the form of embedding the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals into lesson plans. It has been disappointing so far that when the Environmental Audit Committee has taken evidence from the Government, they still seem to see the SDGs as something that we do in developing countries rather than something that we are embedding into the way we do things here. School procurement decisions could be used to teach children about healthy eating.

I want to flag up a few countries that have gone further than the UK. I hope we can look at them as examples. The Dominican Republic, which is at great risk of climate change, established mandatory climate change education in schools in 1998. Australia introduced its national environmental education plan in 2000. Brazil’s educational guidelines required climate change to be taught in all subjects from 1998. The Philippines introduced climate change into the curriculum in 2009. Vietnam did it in 2008. Costa Rica has been doing it since the 1980s. If those countries can do it, we ought to do it in the UK, too.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Henry. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to her work. I know she feels passionately about this subject, as was clear in her speech. She is right that it is important that our children are taught about all the issues she mentioned. She mentioned animal welfare—she did not have time to expand—which is an important part of this. I want to stress that we are doing possibly more than she is aware of.

Let me look at primary education first. As part of the science curriculum, children are taught about the scientific concepts that relate to the environment from key stage 1. Under the national curriculum, five-year-olds will be taught to identify a variety of common and wild plants. They can do that by going out with their teachers. What better way to do it? Pupils at age 5 will also be taught to observe changes across the four seasons, including weather associated with the seasons. They start looking at the climate and how it is changing.

In the following year, pupils look at how seeds and plants grow, including the importance of water, light and the right temperature to keep them healthy. They are encouraged to ask questions about plants and animals in their local environment and observe how living things depend on each other, such as plants serving as a source of food. Such topics are built on at key stage 2, where pupils explore the requirements of plant life and growth. They will learn that environments can change and that that can pose dangers to living things. That includes exploring positive and negative impacts on environments, such as the negative effects of litter or urban development. Pupils are taught about the properties and changes of different materials such as metal, wood, paper and plastic, and that can provide an opportunity to consider how the materials are used, including their impact on their lives.

In key stage 1 geography, pupils are taught about seasonal and daily weather patterns in the UK, and the location of hot and cold areas of the world. In physical geography at key stage 2, pupils will learn about climate zones, biomes, vegetation belts and the water cycle. They will need to understand where food comes from as part of what they are taught in design and technology about cooking and nutrition. That will include seasonality and knowing where and how a variety of ingredients are grown, reared, caught and processed.

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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and to you, Sir Henry, for allowing me to intervene. On the point about the importance of observation in science and geography lessons, does the Minister agree with me that observation skills have made a great contribution to the development of science in this country? I think of the work of Charles Darwin and his observation of finches and evolution on the Beagle voyage, and of Sir Alexander Fleming and his work on the discovery of penicillin. Would she also agree with me about the importance of climate change education, specifically as part of the geography curriculum? She has dealt with that in part in her speech; I would love to hear more details and gain her support for the principle.

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I will certainly give the hon. Gentleman more detail. He is absolutely right: observation is critical. I do wonder whether we spend too much time on our mobile phones walking down the street; we observe very little these days about what is going on around us.

Much can also be done at home. The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned David Attenborough. He is specifically mentioned in the key stage 2 curriculum—I am sure he has inspired many children with the breadth and wonder of his “Blue Planet II” series. Much can go on beyond the classroom.

In key stage 3 science, pupils cover the composition of the atmosphere, the carbon cycle and the importance of recycling. Ecosystems and biodiversity are covered again in more depth. Crucially, pupils will also be taught specifically about the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the effect that that has on the Earth’s climate. Key stage 3 geography covers how human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environments and the climate, and the fact that human activity relies on effective functioning of natural systems. 

I could mention the Government’s 25-year environment plan; I possibly do not have time to do that. It will be published shortly and will set out a vision for how we will improve the environment.

Our new citizenship curriculum can support people with that. For example, at key stage 4, pupils are taught the different ways in which a citizen can contribute to the improvement of their community, including having the opportunity to participate actively through volunteering as well as other forms of responsible activity. The hon. Lady mentioned a number of organisations doing good work, which can form part of that work.

As part of the new science GCSEs introduced in September 2016, pupils will need to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the evidence, and the uncertainties in evidence, for additional anthropogenic causes of climate change. The GCSE also includes the potential effects and mitigation of increased levels of carbon dioxide and ethane on the earth’s climate, and more about ecosystems, including positive and negative human interactions with ecosystems.

Geography GCSE enables students to become globally and environmentally informed. It includes, for example, the UK’s physical and human landscapes and environmental challenges, the characteristics of climate change and the evidence for different causes, including human activity.

As part of the new food preparation and nutrition GCSE, students are required to understand the economic, environmental, ethical and socio-cultural influences on food availability and production processes, as well as diet and healthy choices. Other GCSEs touch on environmental issues, including the new design and technology GCSE, which provides opportunities for students to consider the environmental issues of designing and making products, for instance by investigating factors such as environmental, social and economic challenges. Geology GCSE requires students to look at and consider evidence for climate change. Business GCSE requires students to know and understand the impact of ethical and environmental considerations on business, including sustainability.

It is important to say that teachers are free to teach beyond the curriculum content. For example, teachers can discuss the global development goal on climate action as part of lessons on climate change. They can also draw on the wealth of resources that are out there to support and enhance what they teach. Teachers are professionals and I know they will use every opportunity to do that.

There are many charities and organisations—the hon. Lady mentioned a few—that provide additional support, for example, the Eco-Schools programme run by Keep Britain Tidy. It is pupil-led and involves hands-on work; it gets the whole school and the wider community involved. I believe St Patrick’s primary school in Liverpool has received a green flag school award for doing that. Schools are also free to follow the forest school approach, where pupils can be taught in a woodland or natural environment with trees.

Of course, it is not just what is taught in the curriculum that matters; it is how it is taught. The quality of teaching is vital, and we are offering generous bursaries of up to £26,000 and scholarships worth up to £28,000 to attract science and geography graduates into teaching. We also fund the national network of 46 science learning partnerships to provide science teachers with access to high-quality continuing professional development that aims to improve how they deliver the science curriculum and qualifications. STEM Learning, which delivers that programme, has worked with the Royal Horticultural Society to develop a CPD programme on plant science for primary teachers, including practical sessions on outdoor teaching. STEM Learning also houses a considerable library of teaching resources that schools can access online, many of which will help support the teaching of environmental topics in the curriculum.

At post-16 there will be other opportunities for pupils to study all those issues. The new environmental science A-level replaces the old environmental studies—I think it is crucial that it is called environmental science. It was introduced in September 2017 and provides its students with the opportunity to develop their knowledge and understanding across a range of related topics. The content has been brought into alignment with content for other new science A-levels, to better prepare students for higher education, and that is reflected in the change of name from environmental studies to environmental science.

The new reformed geography A-level enables students to participate critically with real-world issues, grow as independent thinkers and understand the role and importance of geography as one of the key disciplines relevant to the understanding of the world’s changing peoples, places and environments. It includes recognising and being able to analyse the complexity of people-environment interactions and appreciating how they underpin an understanding of some of the key issues facing the world today.

I would add a word about T-levels. The Chancellor allocated additional funding of £500 million for their delivery, and the first teaching of T-levels by a small number of providers will start in September 2020. The agriculture T-level and the environment and animal care T-level will be rolled out in the second wave, to be launched in 2022. That will be of particular interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark).

As with all routes, the content of T-levels will be determined by advisory groups of employers, professionals and practitioners, which will mean that T-level programmes have real market value. We recently launched a public consultation on the implementation of T-levels and want to hear from all stakeholders; the hon. Member for Bristol East might want to contribute to that.

The importance of observation and of embedding a true understanding of science within the curriculum was raised. This is not a subject that can be placed in one little box. What is really important is that the issues the hon. Lady raised are touched on in many different subject areas—one of the problems is that education has been very siloed—and we need good maths, English and digital skills as a foundation. I am sure the hon. Lady is aware that 49% of adults have the maths capability of an 11-year-old or less. It is important that we get the fundamentals right, so that young people grow up to understand exactly the impact that they have on the world around them, the environment in which they live and their local communities. When they drop a piece of litter, they should understand the impact that can have.

I am enormously grateful for the support that the hon. Lady has given to this crucial subject. She has raised some important issues and I know she has campaigned on this. I am sure that, with the Speaker’s leave, she may well secure another debate on this matter—perhaps even a Backbench Business debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.