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Make access to nature at school a statutory right

Jen Davis, Cathriona Hickey and Suzanne Welch, co-chairs of Link’s Education and Learning Policy Group, explain the critical role formal education has in preparing children to adapt and mitigate to the nature and climate crises.

March 2024

Access to and engagement with nature within education will be vital to tackling and adapting to the biodiversity and nature crisis, as well as promoting health and wellbeing and the success of children and young people.

The threat of climate change and biodiversity loss is one of our most urgent societal challenges. Equipping children and young people to not only adapt and thrive in a changing world, but support them to become the next generation of innovators, creative thinkers and contributors to a greener economy must be a fundamental responsibility of our education system.

The Government has recognised the importance of nature within education, including in the Environmental Improvement Plan and the Department for Education’s Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy. But these plans don’t go far enough to guarantee that every child has the level of access, contact and quality of connection with nature required to meet the scale of the challenge head on.

The Education and Learning Policy Group at Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of organisations working on environmental education issues, is trying to change this. We’re taking a holistic view to improve children’s educational outcomes and opportunities in the face of the dual nature and climate crises.

The OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030 project asks “how can we prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, to tackle societal challenges that we cannot yet imagine, and to use technologies that have not yet been invented?"

Education is clearly the key, but what needs to change? And crucially, what needs to change to make the benefits equitable?

It starts with access. Too few children enjoy the benefits and learning opportunities that come from being close to nature. Making schools the equitable space for children to learn about, learn close to, and learn to care for the natural world closes the gap between children who have personal access to natural spaces like gardens and parks, and those that don’t. This means investing in school grounds, re-wildling these spaces to improve biodiversity and creating spaces for learning and play close to nature.

This must be supported by how teachers are prepared to develop children’s understanding of nature and climate. Research shows that 70% of teachers feel underprepared to answer questions their students ask about climate change. Teachers are increasingly being confronted with complex conversations with students that have big implications. Students say they are interested in learning about nature’s decline and climate change, but many already have misconceptions about how it works.

And then we have what is taught, and how it is taught. Nature, climate, and sustainability feature within the curriculum but are routinely confined to the sciences as subject matter, rather than intrinsic societal challenges comparable to British values.

To achieve the level of comprehension required to achieve the DfE’s vision of a “better, greener world for future generations”, children must understand the theoretical applications of ecology, conservation, climate, and sustainability alongside experiential learning; spending regular time in nature, experiencing wildlife first-hand, exploring different habitats, landscapes and ecosystems and understanding the interdependencies that exist between nature and humans.

An education system that values and supports the need for collective action to adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change will unlock the immense potential of a future workforce that will prove critical for a new, greener economy.

The Education and Learning Policy Group at Wildlife and Countryside Link are calling for change. We are urging the next government to take us on a path that equips children and young people to be the leaders and potential change-makers required to help us put nature into recovery, ensuring every child has access to regular, high-quality access to learning in, through and for the natural environment at school.

You can read the full policy paper here.

Jen Davis (The Wildlife Trusts), Cathriona Hickey (ZSL) and Suzanne Welch (RSPB) are co-chairs of Link’s Education and Learning Policy Group. Follow @WCL_News.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.