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National Curriculum: Litter

Volume 790: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to including litter picking in the National Curriculum for Year 6 children, to tidy up the roads and encourage civic responsibility.

My Lords, as part of the science curriculum, children are taught about the scientific concepts that relate to the environment. At key stage 2, pupils should explore examples of the human impact on environments, which can include the negative impact of litter. At present, around 75% of schools in England are members of the Eco-Schools programme. We would like to increase participation in this programme overall and are working actively on anti-littering awareness, including participating in litter picks.

My Lords, that is a start and I am grateful to my noble friend. However, the shocking and disgusting proliferation of litter in our towns and countryside frankly shames this nation. While my proposal might meet with opposition and some people would understandably be very concerned about safety—and, indeed, some teachers might not like it very much—if all children spent a couple of hours clearing litter, it might not only have a gradual effect on attitudes but might in the long term have a positive educational impact. So will my noble friend please go back and look very seriously at this proposal or something similar and take radical action so that we no longer need be ashamed of the state of our highways and byways?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that litter is a scourge. That is why the Government launched the litter strategy last year, which sets out our aim to clean up the country and deliver a substantial reduction in litter within a generation. The litter strategy brings together communities, businesses, charities and, most importantly, schools to bring real change by focusing on three key themes: education and awareness, improving enforcement, and better cleaning and access to bins.

My Lords, given the high rate of illiteracy in many of our primary schools and the low rate of numeracy among 11 year-olds, which affects their subsequent education, does the noble Lord not agree that it would be far better to concentrate on the essentials of a good education and not expose our children to unnecessary danger doing foolish things that are not part of the curriculum?

My Lords, litter is a symptom of children’s respect for our society and environment—so a good education will address these two strands, which is what we do on the people side through the citizenship programmes and PSHE, and through the recent Tom Bennett review of behaviour in schools. As the noble Lord knows, on the environmental side we have just released the 25-year environment plan. We have the Eco-Schools project that I mentioned earlier. The Great British Spring Clean is under way and has been extended because of the bad weather. So I think the noble Lord’s judgment is a little harsh, because not having litter is a symptom of a good society.

My Lords, two weeks from today a penalty of £80 will be imposed on the owner of any vehicle from which litter is thrown. This is a big advance, because previously the offence could never be prosecuted. The Government have now made it subject to a civil penalty rather than classing it as a crime. However, does my noble friend accept that the penalties for fly tipping and the enforcement of those penalties are completely inadequate?

My Lords, this comes back to my earlier statement that this is about a sense of public responsibility and duty. I am delighted that the fines for littering from cars have been increased. My noble friend will also be aware that from January this year we banned the use of microbeads in cosmetic substances—so the whole thrust is to improve the protection of our environment. I applaud the most recent action to which he referred.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise this issue and of course Keep Britain Tidy does a lot of work in schools. But now that we have light at the end of the tunnel, will the Minister not lobby the Government to provide more money to local authorities so that the highways, verges and streets that he is concerned about can be properly cleansed, with local authorities given the resources to carry that out? I know that this is not quite in the Minister’s brief but, while I am up perhaps I might ask—as some schools include this as part of PSHE—when the consultation on PSHE will be concluded, and will we have an opportunity to discuss the recommendations?

My Lords, in relation to the noble Lord’s first question, if we can change attitudes we will not need to spend large sums of taxpayers’ money cleaning up the litter left by careless people. In relation to PSHE, the review closed on 12 February and we had a record number of responses. We will be replying to that as soon as possible. It is also worth noting that an additional requirement that we have of schools is for the social, moral, spiritual and cultural development of children. This is a high-level duty that sits outside PSHE. It is written into legislation and also into the academy funding agreement, and it includes issues such as respect for the environment.

I am wary of criticising the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, given his service in the SAS, but I suspect that there are many parents and not a few children today who, having heard him, are quite relieved that there are mercifully few chimneys left in this country. I wonder whether the noble Lord is aware that it is extremely rare for the broad and balanced year 6 curriculum not to include civic responsibility, so it is not a problem. There are many great teachers in state schools in this country, not least Andria Zafirakou, who was named as the winner of the Global Teacher Prize just a few days ago. That is a tremendous credit to her work at Alperton Community School in north London. I suspect that most teachers in this country would welcome a robust statement from the Minister that teachers should be allowed to get on and teach. Will he give that assurance?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it is very important that teachers are allowed to teach. The core of our reforms over the last seven or eight years has been the granting of autonomy to schools and the freeing up of the key stage 3 curriculum to give space for the teaching of things that are not directly linked to exams. I come back to my general theme: much of education is about producing a spiritual sense and a sense of belonging in society—so I agree that we should not be mandating additional individual activities.