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Twenty Years of Education in Exmoor National Park

Logo: Exmoor National Park

Leaving Strode College, Egham in 1988 as a P.E. and geography teacher I could never have predicted the fantastic opportunity that education in a National Park (NP) would offer me. It was largely accidental and something I certainly hadn’t planned.

 The NPs in Great Britain are areas protected because of their natural beauty and recreation value.  National Park Authorities (NPA) work to achieve the conservation of these areas and to encourage a better understanding and enjoyment of their special qualities. In achieving these aims the Authorities must also seek to foster the social and economic needs of the local communities. In the late 1980s the education service within Exmoor NPA was me, as part of the Ranger team; of which there were four. My remit was simple to make as much happen through local schools and volunteers as was possible. It was heaven, no school environment, children and teachers very willing to get involved and do something, but the cloud of the prescriptive National Curriculum (NC) was upon us. Despite this restriction teachers wanting to get their children out of the classroom found the way, and my feeling is that more learning took place outside the classroom then.

In the 1990s Somerset County Council were looking to dispose of their outdoor residential education centres, and Pinkery came the way of Exmoor NPA. Despite the ups and downs of changing curricular and emphases placed on schools, Pinkery has remained very popular with many schools returning for over 15 years.  I suggest this is a reflection of those teachers that ‘believe’ and are prepared to put in the extra effort that a residential experience demands. A considerable body of academic research would support the linkage between early experiences outside the classroom in the countryside and future beliefs or career.   

The present era, has been one of verifiable and quantifiable health and safety mechanisation. I understand the necessity and agree with the fundamental principles, expressed by Alan Dyer of Plymouth Uni, who says “ensuring children are safe is part of being a responsible adult. But where do we draw the line so that the excitement and adventure are not lost?”. (1)

For those that have the passion to share the countryside with others, don’t be put off.  Freeman Tilden, a Canadian Mountie, and pioneer of outdoor education quotes Anatole France:  “do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things. Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire.” (2)

Today, within Exmoor NPA, and generally speaking all environmental providers, education is no longer just a ‘bolt on’ to get some good pictures of happy children but is an integral part of many projects. Lottery funding has enabled us to deliver education projects in Taunton, Bridgwater & North Devon and an education officer to deliver a project on the Brendon Hill Mineral Line. We realise that the adults of today are the children of yesterday and the more time we can spend integrating them into their environment the greater the understanding and belief in the purposes of a NP. We certainly aren’t perfect, but I like to think that trying to engage every child during every year of their education within Exmoor has created some inflammable stuff.

Dave Gurnett, Education Manager, www.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk

Ref 1 Dyer, A. (2003) A Sense of Adventure, Earth Education from Resurgence 226.  http://www.resurgence.org

Ref 2 Tilden, F. (1957) Interpreting Our Heritage, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

First published in CJS Focus on Environmental Education in association with The Field Studies Council on 24 November 2008

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