Spotlight on Environmental Education

Logo: National Association for Environmental Education (UK)

by Sue Fenoughty, NAEE Executive, with contributions from fellow executive members: Gabrielle Back, David Fellows & Henricus Peters.

NAEE – the National Association for Environmental Education – is an educational charity founded by a group of teachers over 50 years ago to promote environmental education (EE) and education for sustainable development (ESD).   Despite the many educational changes over the years, NAEE’s main role continues to be the provision of support for teachers delivering environmental education in our schools.  

What is Environmental Education?

In 1990, Environmental Education was introduced as a cross-curricular theme in the National Curriculum.   It encompasses both the built and the natural environments, through its 7 topics: Climate, Water, Energy, Plants & Animals, Soil, Rocks & Minerals, Buildings, Industrialisation & Waste, and People & Communities. Although it was dropped from the curriculum six years later, opportunities still exist to develop the ‘environment’ aspect of current subject areas, notably in science, geography, technology, and  history especially through local studies where pupils can investigate how people lived in past times and their impact on the environment through the ages.   

Year 4 pupil from Slade Primary School investigating plants at the Botanical Gardens.  (H.Gregory, NAEE)
Year 4 pupil from Slade Primary School investigating plants at the Botanical Gardens. (H.Gregory, NAEE)

An approach for teaching and learning

The approach used for teaching and learning about the environment starts in the Early Years/Foundation Stage of a child’s education with ’knowledge and understanding of the world’.     The child’s own local environment is the teaching and learning resource:   here the child learns about the environment (knowledge), in the environment (knowledge and skills) for the environment (developing caring attitudes for the environment).   By exploring their immediate surroundings, young people can begin to develop a sense of identity and pride in their area, and a deeper understanding of the need to care for it. As they get older, this local environmental knowledge helps them to understand and appreciate environmental issues on a more global scale and equips them to make informed decisions about the Earth’s future.

At the beginning of the new millennium, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) was introduced into the National Curriculum but it was non-statutory.  It was given a boost in 2006 when the government launched its Sustainable Schools Strategy (S3), exhorting schools, by the year 2020, to follow the recommendations laid down in the Strategy’s eight ‘doorways’.     In 2009, NAEE published its second edition of ‘Positive Action’ explaining how Environmental Education is the ‘green corridor’ giving access to the eight ‘doorways’, by helping pupils and staff alike to understand the environmental reasons behind the need for us all to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.     S3 was scrapped a year later, in 2010, by the Education Secretary.

Despite these two enormous setbacks, there are still schools across the country determined to become ‘green’ schools, encouraged by non-governmental organisations such as EcoSchools.     Two years ago, thanks to generous funding from a Birmingham family, NAEE set up a project to give bursaries to inner-city schools for pupils to spend a day at one of the city’s outdoor learning centres, which include a working farm.     Recent increased charges at the centres resulted in fewer visits from the inner-city schools, but the bursary scheme has stepped in to help these schools, and is proving to be very successful.     To date the scheme has given over 500 city children, across all phases of education, a day away from the city streets, investigating nature first hand, and also seeing where their food comes at the farm centre.

An increasing number of schoolchildren are growing up in urban environments but with no experience whatsoever of the natural environment – a term coined in 2005 as ‘nature deficit disorder’ by Richard Louv in his book 'Last Child in the Woods'. The NAEE Kenrick project is part of a growing movement to address this dire and urgent educational need.

The following are extracts from teachers’ reports of their pupils’ visits to two of the outdoor learning centres, funded by the NAEE Kenrick Project bursaries:

GCSE students pond dipping at St. Paul's Community School.  (H. Gregory, NAEE)
GCSE students pond dipping at St. Paul's Community School. (H. Gregory, NAEE)

1. Small groups of GCSE students from St Paul’s Community School visited Martineau Gardens over several weeks as part of their GCSE studies.   ‘The over-arching goal of   the school is to combat disadvantage, and support pupils who have been excluded, failed or alienated by large mainstream schools. It seeks to reconnect pupils with the mainstream, and enable them to succeed and achieve.

It’s been a delight to see pupils who struggle with academic subjects being enthused to come to lessons learning science through practical experience at Martineau Gardens.  

Success is already evident.   A recent Ofsted inspection remarked how this curriculum had really changed pupils’ enjoyment of science.     Pond dipping at the Martineau Gardens provided pupils with real life field work. Here they also prepared beds with composted leaf litter in poly-tunnels and thinned out plants around the gardens.   These activities provided opportunities for classroom-allergic pupils to shine and engage with skills that could begin a lifelong passion for gardening.

A visit by Greet Primary school to Mount Pleasant Farm. (H. Gregory, NAEE)
A visit by Greet Primary school to Mount Pleasant Farm. (H. Gregory, NAEE)

2. Greet Primary School is in the densely populated Sparkhill district of Birmingham’s inner city where many children spend their early lives unaware of the countryside beyond.   A favourite topic of year 4 pupils is ‘food and farming’ beginning with a visit to Mount Pleasant Farm, Worcestershire.   The farm visit is a truly eye opening experience for them, from seeing the wide range of animals to being in such an open and green environment.   The hands-on activities are something they talk about for weeks after, including ‘milking the cow,’ which led to one pupil deciding on a new career choice; “I want to be a farmer”.

Closure of Outdoor Learning Centres

But this is now going to grind to a halt. In March, for budgetary reasons, Birmingham City Council decided to close its Outdoor Learning Centres (OLS) providing adventure and/or environmental studies activities for the city’s schoolchildren;     this means redundancy notices for OLS staff at the end of this summer. This decision mirrors other local authorities, especially as many of their schools become academies or free schools, and therefore out of local authority control and support.  The effect of the OLS closures on Birmingham’s urban schoolchildren will be devastating, robbing many of them of the often life-changing opportunities to investigate and understand and therefore appreciate the natural environment!

NAEE has been aware for some time about the decreasing opportunities in schools for environmental education, despite the growing need for children to reconnect with their environment. These case studies illustrate how EE can remain a vital part of schools which value the cross curricular, hands-on experiences gained by visits to environmental and farm centres. But the increasing pressures on school budgets make visits of any kind beyond the means of many schools, especially in deprived areas with low income families.     Another drawback is the lack of status attached to education about the environment. The core curriculum subjects, especially English and Maths, have become the main concern for schools and how to improve their pupils’ results in the national tests, and thereby raise their OFSTED rating.    

These are difficult times for NAEE and the future of environmental education.   The Association will continue to offer Birmingham schools Kenrick bursaries for visits to environmental centres and farms.     But this is just one area of the country and NAEE needs funding to spread the environmental education message into all the country’s schools as it did in the l990s, when hundreds of schools were members and every local authority had its own Environmental Education inspector.     The worry today is where will our children and young people gain the all-important knowledge, skills and attitudes to equip them to understand and make the right decisions about environmental issues in the future, when our planet is in their hands?        

For more information, and to join NAEE, go to

Updated information July 2015: 

Since May last year, when the article appeared, Birmingham City Council closed its Outdoor Learning Service at the end of last summer.   However, throughout this academic year, 2014-2015, NAEE has continued to grant 'Kenrick'  bursaries to Birmingham schools for day visits to centres offering environmental activities;  these are:Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Martineau Gardens, Mount Pleasant School Farm and the Council-run Birmingham Conservation & Wildlife Park (formerly the Nature Centre).   The Head of Centre at the Farm (Nina Hatch, who is also Chair of NAEE) was able to continue her job when the OLS closed as the Worgan Trust stepped in,  providing her salary together with the costs of running the Education Classroom.   NAEE has just published an up-to-date curriculum document for primary teachers, 'The Environmental Curriculum', highlighting all the environmental opportunities in the new Primary Curriculum, which can be seen on our updated website,   This document will, of course, also be useful to all those involved in educating primary age children about their environment.

Updated information November 2020:

From Sue Fenoughty, NAEE Executive member

Unfortunately since the last update to the article in early March 2020, the Coronovirus pandemic has severely affected the continuance of the Bursary scheme to Bimingham and West Midlands schools, which enabled children to visit outdoor centres to pursue environmental activities. Since March, no visits have taken place but we are hoping to resume visits in the Spring term 2021, if the Centres have been able to put in place any restrictions necessary. Another Centre has been added to the existing ones: the RSPB centre at Sandwell Valley near Birmingham.

NAEE meetings of the Executive and Trustees have continued throughout this lockdown period using Zoom technology. The Environmental Education journal has continued to be published, either as an e-journal or one printed copy annually. Follow NAEE’s news on their website: 

First published in CJS Focus on Environmental & Outdoor Education in affiliation with NAEE UK - the National Association for Environmental Education (UK) on 19 May 2014

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