Sustainability and Climate Change: Rhetoric and Reality

Rhetoric and Reality: sustainability in schools

Stonyhurst College, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went to school, and the place where JRR Tolkien gained much of the inspiration for the Lord of the Rings. Set in acres of meadows, woods and hills, near the Trough of Bowland and Pendle Hill, it is an area of outstanding natural beauty.

It’s also where I went to school.

Nature was at my doorstep, as it is to thousands of children who attend village schools, or leafy academies in semi-rural suburbia. I noticed on Twitter the other day that a headteacher in Sussex was reflecting on how wonderful it is to see the children playing on the school field in spring. But, where I work in inner-city Liverpool, we have no school field. Just a few strips of grass which we have given to our Nursery and Reception pupils.

So here’s my argument.

It is my assertion that young people from more privileged backgrounds are disproportionately represented in environmental activism, political involvement and sustainable development initiatives. It’s become a middle-class pastime. On the other hand, those from more disadvantaged backgrounds are too often disenfranchised, unable to join in, contribute and/or lead. If the Govt really want all children ‘close to nature’, as stated in the recent policy announcement, it is here where they need to start.

For I argue it has profound consequences in any number of ways if they don’t.

  • These pupils are exposed disproportionately to greater levels of air pollution and traffic danger.
  • They have less access to safe, green and well-resourced spaces.
  • They have less chance to experience the awe and wonder of nature, something which supports mental health and well-being
  • Less outdoor living contributes to childhood obesity levels and diabetes
  • Children have less exposure to the vocabulary, knowledge and experiences that nature provides, and its sensory stimulation.

The DfE document makes little reference to this, hence my linking of the words ‘rhetoric’ and ‘reality’ in the title above.

I argue that it is incumbent on schools in such areas, those with highest levels of socio-economic decline, to champion the aspirations of the DfE vision. They should be the leaders of this agenda, at the forefront of the 25-year Environmental Plan. This would be true ‘levelling-up’. Through initiatives such as the Backyard Nature campaign in our neighbourhood of Anfield, the rhetoric can truly be brought into reality. Pupils from inner-city Liverpool have started, shaped and rolled out a national campaign that has led to 15,000 backyard nature guardians in the UK and beyond.

But here’s another thing.

Schools in areas of greater challenge – poor parenting, more crime, poverty, substance abuse, housing issues – are also being challenged about literacy and numeracy standards, about school attendance, about one hundred and one other things. At the same time, they’re filling the gaps for the paucity of support services that these communities so desperately need.

Placing sustainability and the environment at the heart of school improvement is way down the list of priorities for school leaders given these circumstances. There is no incentive whatsoever for leaders in those communities to champion this strategy – yet these children deserve it the most!

So, I argue we need a reality check. In seeking to level up, the DfE must incentivise schools and especially those in our most challenging communities.  Any plan for sustainability and climate change education, however you want to call it, must sit hand in hand with social change and a commitment of the common good.

Otherwise, the inequalities so apparent during the pandemic, will only multiply, and the energies and talents of so many children and families will be lost.

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