BACK in a time which seems decades ago, but was actually January this year, our school, All Saints Catholic Primary School, Anfield, was fortunate enough to receive a visit from HRH The Duke of Cambridge. The purpose of Prince William’s visit was to see the work of the Eco-Emeralds, a group of pupils behind a grassroots campaign called Backyard Nature.
Backyard Nature seeks to unite an army of young nature guardians who can protect our planet for future generations. The Eco-Emeralds were particularly looking forward to showing off their ‘bug hotels’, one of which was appropriately named ‘Bugingham Palace’. The visit has been captured in the ITV documentary entitled ‘Prince William: A Planet For Us All ’.
All Saints, bang in the middle of inner-city Liverpool and a stone’s throw from the Anfield football stadium, provides an unlikely venue for an environmental initiative, but that was exactly the point. For when it comes to protecting nature, we can all provide leadership, no matter where we live, no matter what we own. The Duke’s travels, to all corners of the United Kingdom, aimed to celebrate this message, and we were only too delighted to be part of it.
His Royal Highness was impressive, completely at ease with the children. He spent at least an hour with them, chatting about nature, learning about the local area and filling ‘Bugingham Palace’ with grass, twigs and pebbles. Upon his departure, a diminutive Eco-Emerald by the name of Nell offered a gift to Prince William – a basket full of honey, all coming from a busy hive in South Wales, gifted to the school by the Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation.
‘This is for your wife and your children,’ she instructed him, ‘and there’s one for your brother in Canada too.’ And then he was off to his next engagement, though not before he’d chatted to another dozen pupils on his way out.
I’d like to think that The Duke’s documentary has also shone a light on the positive work of inner-city pupils outside of London. During the pandemic, it was typical to hear middle-class commentators worry about the vulnerability of such communities, imagining them in overcrowded, dimly-lit houses, glued to their consoles. Whilst this may be true for some, it ignores the many families who made a positive experience out of lockdown. Groups of pupils and their families demonstrated imagination and fun, caring for the world around them. I was amazed at the bug hotels and plant beds that they and their families built during lockdown, or the photographs they sent in during our Nature Photography Week in May.
So I’d like to make some wider points, all of which might provide lessons for the education of children in a post-Covid 19 landscape. The first is about activism, the second related to community, and the third around leadership. All three are bound together by a common concern for the future of our planet.
Firstly, a plea for a more benevolent, benign activism. The Eco-Emeralds did the bulk of their work in school, and our curriculum is flexible enough to allow the pupils to share their work with each other, to develop greater depth and interest. We have dissuaded them from using vocabulary such as ‘demands’ and ‘rights’, instead focusing on personal responsibility and the common good. Too often, environmentalism is seen as an aggressive, hectoring activity done by ‘other’ people. But I argue it should be placed at the very heart of our curriculum, irrespective of politics or ideology. What is more important the stewardship of our world?
Instead, I worry that some activists see schools as the places to escape from, castigated as part of the problem. Away from school, young people take to the streets, even going on strike from school, as if this will lend greater credibility to their protests.
Not for me. Schools should be part of the solution, by teaching pupils how to persuade and argue, how to articulate their learning clearly, how to love the world around them, how to behave with humility and compassion.
In turn, the education system needs to be far better connected to its communities. Partly due to safeguarding and terrorism worries, and partly due to the fanatical urge to chase ever-increasing test results, some schools have erected walls and fences and kept the community out. They have lost contact with the streets and estates that they purport to serve. What the Eco-Emeralds have shown is that when pupils, parents, teachers, businesses and community groups come together in a common cause, amazing things can happen (like being visited by the future King of Britain).
The condition of our local environment is something all communities can get behind, and schools are the perfect conduits to provide some optimism during these testing times. For example, we hope that Buginham Palace will be the centre-point of the regeneration of a local park, at present a no-go area for families. Wildflower meadows, cycle paths, walking trails – these are all possible but, crucially, they must be agreed by the people that live there. Schools are in a unique position to broker such initiatives, give them credibility and energise the local community.
Regardless of age, we must also value leadership more in our schools. Neither the Eco-Emerald initiative, nor the subsequent impact it has had, would have happened without a culture of leadership, one where responsibilities are accepted in a climate of trust. Teachers need the autonomy to seek out learning and experiences that can spark interest, confidence and action in their pupils. Children need to be given opportunities to develop leadership skills, at a level appropriate for their age. One of our neighbours, St Vincent’s School for the Blind, does this brilliantly, showing that disability is no barrier whatsoever to train pupils how to coach and lead their community. At our school, the Eco-Emeralds were tasked last year with presenting their ideas to a roomful of charity leaders and CEOs. Whilst their teacher supported them with their preparations, they were expected to take on the responsibilities of leadership in a safe environment. They responded magnificently.
In short, we need more local leadership, from pupils, teachers and headteachers. Now is a perfect time to begin.
It’s amazing just how much has changed since January. Incredibly, in a separate school initiative, we were all set to depart for Qingdao, China on 19th March – ten Y6 pupils and some of their parents, along with staff. We had hoped to hold a conference with our Chinese partner school, all about the Backyard Nature campaign. I say incredible because it now seems inconceivable that schools would take their pupils to the local town centre, never mind the other side of the world. We’ll now have to try and organise this conference online.
So a clarion call from me. The Eco-Emeralds have shown grassroots leadership which unites communities near and far. Their energy and character has led to a visit from HRH Duke of Cambridge and injected great momentum to the Backyard Nature campaign. Their benign activism provides a window into an education that is full of knowledge and skills, but is actually far more ambitious, seeking to reach out to its community, championing leadership at all levels.
Thank you, your Royal Highness, and thank you the Eco-Emeralds for leading the way. Together, we can put our communities, and the environment we share, first.
To learn more about Backyard Nature and become a guardian, visit www.backyardnature.co.uk