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Litter: Schoolchildren

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 11 April 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the Great British Spring Clean; and, further to the answer by Lord Agnew of Oulton on 20 March 2018 (HL Deb 790, col 177), what further consideration they have given to encouraging all Year 6 primary school pupils to assist in litter picking by setting aside two hours in the national curriculum.

My Lords, we support the Great British Spring Clean and are delighted that, this year, more than 500,000 people have already registered to take part. As part of last year’s campaign, almost 127,000 schoolchildren participated in the Great Big School Clean. That number will hopefully rise further this year. The national curriculum is not intended to represent everything schools should teach; schools can choose to teach pupils about the impact of litter, and many already help their pupils undertake volunteering, including litter-picking.

My Lords, I am sure that the House congratulates the promoters and organisers of the Great British Spring Clean, which, as my noble friend said, is supported enthusiastically by thousands of schoolchildren. When I raised this issue about a year ago, the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie—who I fear is not in his place—suggested from the Opposition Front Bench that this was akin to sending children up chimneys. I do not have his personal knowledge of the consequences of combustion, but this is about education, not child labour. If we got all 10 and 11 year-olds in this country to spend just one afternoon in their lives clearing litter for our towns and rural lanes, it would lead to them and their families being educated. Indeed, it might lead to a better attitude towards litter in society in the long term. Will my noble friend press Her Majesty’s Government to encourage all schools to join this initiative, either compulsorily or voluntarily?

My noble friend is right: this is about education. His aim is laudable but the Government have pledged not to change the national curriculum for the duration of this Parliament to provide stability and consistency for schools’ programmes and the teaching profession. However, he will know that, as part of the science curriculum, children are taught about scientific concepts relating to the environment, and that this can include teaching them about the negative effects of overpopulation, development, litter and deforestation.

My Lords, this Question relates directly to year 6 pupils. Does the Minister agree that, once they have completed the tests in May, it would be a very good idea to encourage them to continue picking up litter, to distinguish those aspects that can be recycled for the use of schools to provide some relief from the enormous budget cuts that they are experiencing —for instance, so that paper can be recycled during the following year?

I am certain that head teachers are thinking very carefully about how to put the environment into PSHE and education in schools. In 2017, the Litter Strategy for England set out a commitment to facilitate strong, consistent anti-litter education, including reviewing existing teaching resources and making sure that they meet teachers’ needs.

My Lords, the Question asks whether we should take out a certain year to perform a certain function. Has the Minister given any thought to how we might expand this, and what might be the good cause for which we take time out of the curriculum in year 7 or 8, or possibly starting in year 5? We have a very crowded curriculum, where people are usually fighting to get stuff in. Is this not a ridiculous idea?

I think that teaching about the environment should be spread throughout a pupil’s education. Given that this Question is about year 6, it is important that a start is made in the early years. I am reminded, as this House will be, of the “Mr Men” books. It might be appropriate, perhaps, to start off with “Mr Recycling” or “Mr Litter”. It is a whole process throughout the education of the child, through into secondary school.

There are a number of initiatives around. In fact, as part of our litter strategy, we launched a new campaign called Keep it, Bin it, in partnership with Keep Britain Tidy. This is the first government-backed, national anti-litter campaign in a generation. It is not just focused on schoolchildren but on adults, too, who need to take responsibility.

My Lords, we would all on this side support a spring clean-out of some sort. Last month, thousands of people, including primary school children, teenagers and university students, walked out of their lessons as part of a climate change protest. The Government say that they want young people to be engaged with the issues affecting them, but young people feel that our generation pays no regard to their views. Will the Minister commit to improving engagement with young people and championing the issues that affect their generation?

The noble Lord is right: we are looking to commit. As I mentioned earlier, schools play a major part in that. In terms of his point about the strikes, it is great to see young people such as Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish campaigner, who is so engaged and passionate about climate change. We are all behind her. However, the department does not condone pupils missing out on education. I cannot think why they could not have undertaken their protest at weekends, on Saturdays and Sundays.

My Lords, since overnight we seem to have postponed spring from 29 March to 31 October, I wonder whether, if there are two hours to spare in the national curriculum, we could ask year 6 children to try to resolve Brexit, given that they might do a better job than the current Government.

I applaud the ingenuity of the noble Baroness for bringing this Question round to Brexit. This Question is about the environment, and I am sure that the Liberal Democrats will be behind me in putting that at the forefront, as they normally do.

I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Robathan is involved in the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme to schools, but if not, he clearly would be a great asset to it. After explaining the work of the House of Lords to students, he could then lead them out on to the litter trail, showing all the enthusiasm and ebullience that he demonstrates in this House.

I have taken part in that particular outreach programme myself. I am not sure that we could stretch to that; I think that we should focus on explaining the role of the House of Lords.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the pressures on primary schools and their teachers are immense? It would be far better to make this kind of education possible within the classroom. That would take up much less time, be far less dangerous, and would not expose children to other risks such as infection.

The noble Lord makes a good point. I mentioned earlier that there is a lot of teaching in the classroom about the environment, but it is very much up to school head teachers to decide whether they want to take children outside the classroom. Let us start by leading by example and clearing up school grounds. However, the noble Lord makes a good point that safety has to come first.