ECOS 43 (1): Education and skills for a nature-positive future

“For biodiversity to be protected, it has to be valued. This starts with education.”

From Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust? Report summary UK Parliament 30.6.20211

Before embarking on this short field studies trip, I want to share a few health and safety concerns. First, I have no particular expertise (or vested interests) in the issues discussed. I mention this because education and nature conservation have previously been covered in ECOS by those, like Chris Rose, with far greater knowledge than me.2 Second, this is a very big topic on which a short article can only provide limited perspectives. Third, “nature education” at the present time is likely to have strengths and weaknesses similar to other areas of learning as economic values tend to prioritise certain intellectual skills at the expense of other forms of intelligence, including more practical abilities.3 For instance, current school emphasis on literacy, numeracy and IT skills may under value so-called naturalistic intelligence.4 With these caveats in mind, my journey will explore how knowledge about the natural world and practical nature conservation skills are transmitted by mainstream education institutions and other providers. The article focusses on Britain, although some international experience is also cited, and follows this itinerary.

  • Public discourses around the natural environment
  • Nature education for children and young people
  • Higher education provision in England and Wales
  • Vocational and life-long learning programmes
  • Some concluding reflections on what I have learnt.

Public discourses around the natural environment

Whatever one’s general views on the state of the natural environment, locally and globally, and environmental governance in the UK and international spheres, there is a genuine institutional commitment to a “nature positive” future and the provision of universal education to support this.5, 6 Here, such commitment is reflected in the “Biodiversity in the UK: Bloom or Bust?” (note the question mark!) report published by parliament last year.1 This report supports the establishment of a Natural History GCSE, as well as “nature visits, teaching outside and getting children involved in the Government’s tree-planting drive to form part of education recovery plans.” In short, post-Covid outdoor education and nature recovery plans are seen as linked. Outside parliament, there is widespread and long-standing support for this approach, although many statutory providers may struggle with actually delivering it due to various resource constraints.

Britain’s success at producing natural history broadcasting for national and global audiences is undisputed.7 Incidentally, the National Film and Television School in partnership with the BBC offers a masters in “Directing and Producing Science and Natural History.”8 However, ECOS contributors have previously argued that such programming has not created a public genuinely well informed and educated about nature conservation or, more importantly, willing to take practical action; although series with a strong local dimension may be more effective motivators.9, 10 Nevertheless, there remains very considerable enthusiasm amongst providers, including new streaming services, and the public, for natural history broadcasting. Commercial media opportunities aside, one reason may be that watching nature documentaries has been found to have significant psychological benefits (for human and other animals), even if this does not always convert into useful actions.11 Similarly, more practical nature-based learning demonstrates a range of positive outcomes for participants, especially younger ones but also throughout life, as summarised in the diagram below, even if some deliver limited ‘hard’ field study skills.12

Figure 1: Nature-based learning: exposure, probable mechanisms and outcome.12

Nature education for children and young people

Public interest in nature education is reflected in a recent House of Commons briefing and debate on the proposed Natural History GCSE.13, 14 This qualification has been developed and promoted by the nature campaigner and writer Mary Colwell to re-engage students with the natural history of Britain, in particular, and equip them with the naturalist skills to record this.15 The approach seems to fit well with the government’s own proposed Natural Education Nature Park concept:

“School grounds alone in England cover an area over twice the size of Birmingham. The National Education Nature Park will encourage nurseries, schools, colleges and universities to think of this land as one whole ‘park’ with vast potential to help halt the decline of biodiversity in this country.

As their work starts to have an impact, young people involved will upload their progress on the park’s digital mapping services. They will be able to see how the Park is ‘growing’ while increasing their knowledge of species and developing important skills, such as biodiversity mapping, data collection and analysis. The park will be developed in collaboration with children and young people and the many excellent stakeholders that work in this area”.16

However, support for the new GCSE has not been universal, with one contributor to the parliamentary debate voicing a common objection that: “Environmental literacy should be developed across a range of subjects. Learning about our natural world should not be limited to one subject alone.”14 Similarly, a critical view of the proposed National Education Nature Park could infer that the focus on school grounds may reduce the need for students to go on field studies trips.

The other problem may be that whilst the subject of nature education has enthused adults, in recent years it seems to have struggled to thoroughly engage children and young people. Burgeoning curricula, the increasing dominance of technology in schools and highly structured learning may partly account for this. For instance, a retired primary school headteacher wrote to the Guardian about the relaxed afternoon in 1983 her pupils spent with the late Professor David Bellamy – an academic botanist and in my opinion one of the great popularisers of nature education in Britain – in an account difficult to imagine by 2019 when he died.17 Bellamy had considerable enthusiasm for hands-on nature conservation projects, and supported a large number, including one in South-East London in which I was involved during the 1990s, whose educational work continues to this day.18

More recently, between 2019-20 I visited the Cambrian Wildwood project in Mid Wales, an initiative with close links to ECOS and BANC.19 The work of the Wales Wildland Foundation which runs the project has increasingly focussed on programmes with local schools as well as more alternative learning experiences.20 Such experiential nature-based learning for children has been popular since the 1950s in Scandinavian countries, where it is associated with “Forest Schools” and “Viking Parenting”.21 This model has now become widely adopted in the UK, by a range of schools from urban primaries to an ‘elite’ girls’ boarding establishment in Southern England where some personal rewilding is felt to be advantageous to young people after the confinements of Coronavirus.22, 23

Members of the Cambrian Wildwood team supervise young people visiting the project.20

Higher education provision in England and Wales

One positive outcome of Coronavirus restrictions on school education may be less emphasis on exam-based assessments, perhaps opening up opportunities for more practical course work. This is already a strong feature of most vocational courses at Further Education Colleges, whose wildlife management, nature conservation and other programmes will be discussed later. The present focus is on university undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications, mainly in England and Wales. This is a huge subject and I’ve therefore decided to look at just two English and two Welsh universities: Oxford and Oxford Brookes, together with Aberystwyth and Bangor. Oxford is generally regarded as one of the world’s top universities with an increasingly global outlook on the environment and other major issues, whilst Brookes has a strong track record in delivering courses such as spatial planning (think Biodiversity Net Gain) with links to UK professional institutions.24, 25, 26 Aberystwyth is the leading university in Wales for animal and environmental sciences, with particular strengths in teaching and research on rural issues; whilst Bangor shares comparable offerings and also hosts one of the country’s original schools of forestry.27, 28

Returning to England, in the 21st century Oxford University has become a ground-breaking international centre for higher education in nature conservation, rewilding and ecosystems restoration. A pioneer in this enterprise has been the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, founded by Professor David Macdonald in 1986.29 WildCRU’s work has expanded through major inter and trans-disciplinary collaborations leading to the creation of an innovative natural governance programme based at the Oxford Martin School.30 Provision for undergraduate and post-graduates increasingly reflects the university’s global position and a new Life and Mind Building will accommodate staff and students engaged in what might be described as Oxford’s nature positive mission.31, 32, 33 The building will be home to a new Department of Biology combining the existing plant science and zoology departments, as well as the Department of Experimental Psychology. As the largest construction project in the University’s history, the development reflects Oxford’s growing – and sometimes controversial – relationship with wealthy philanthropists and commercial companies, in this case main funder, Legal and General, together with the founder of INEOS Group.34

The University of Oxford’s new Life and Mind Building due to open in 2024.35

However, it would be wrong to portray Oxford University as an institution just thinking globally on the environment. Healthy Ecosystem Restoration Oxfordshire (HERO) involves a partnership of local and national organisations creating a “model county for nature recovery”.36 Similarly, Oxford Brookes has worked with a range of partners, including the city’s other university, to bring together “recent research and ancient wisdom” to explore “the beneficial effects of trees on human well-being and happiness.”37 Reflecting its association with professional institutions, Brookes’ post-graduate Conservation Ecology course potentially leads to Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) accreditation.38 Emphasis is placed on developing “field skills, including identification and survey techniques required for effective conservation.” Leading ecologist Dr Stephanie Wray is a fellow and past president of CIEEM and one of the founders of Nature Positive, a new environmental management company.39 Wray also describes herself as “not a little bit country” and in so doing honestly admits that many “biodiversity management” professionals increasingly share an urban rather than rural perspective on the natural world. I’d suggest that values-based and other important cognitive differences linked to this division in how people relate to nature are a key consideration for education institutions. They are certainly one of my reasons for selecting two Welsh universities with large rural hinterlands to discuss next.

The very different fates of forestry education at Oxford and Bangor Universities provide a barometer of the contemporary value attached to this subject at the two institutions. Whilst the Oxford Forestry Institute was closed in 2002, the subject continues to thrive at the Welsh University which offers a wide range of undergraduate and post-graduate courses.40, 41, 28 Bangor has one of the oldest forestry schools in the UK. The department was established in 1907, and the following year Bangor became the first university in Britain to offer a (two-year) degree in forestry. Since then the university has stuck with its roots. The current Professor of Forest Sciences, John Healey, says;

“…from its earliest days Bangor University sought to develop teaching in subjects of local, national and global importance.  Forestry has been one of the greatest successes of this policy: Bangor University is established as a world-leading institution which has achieved a huge impact on the profession of forestry and the sustainable management of forests.  The education of international students has been a major feature throughout the history of forestry at Bangor, with students graduating from more than 100 countries.42

The development of Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) also has a long history and has become one of the largest departments of life sciences in the UK.27 However, I want to highlight the importance of the University’s championship of a rural perspective in Welsh nature conservation and ecological restoration. This is reflected in a 2021 report entitled A Rural Vision for Wales from which the following extract – which cites the Cambrian Wildwood experience43– is taken:

A number of small projects have successfully implemented habitat restoration and the reintroduction of historic wild species, including beavers and pine martens. However, proposals for more extensive ‘re-wilding’ schemes have proved controversial, with concerns from local communities and the farming sector over local accountability, external and corporate land ownership, landscape impacts, predation risks and the permanent loss of productive land and, with it, agricultural employment.44

Unlike Oxford University, Aberystwyth has therefore taken a much more cautious approach to the subject of rewilding, and supported instead less potentially controversial research projects, such as a collaboration with Irish University College Cork and other partners on Effects of Climate Change on Birds around the Irish Sea or the ECHOES Project.45, 46

Lower saltmarsh Dyfi Estuary Aberystwyth University-led (ECHOES Project Gallery).46

Vocational and life-long learning programmes

Aberystwyth also supports a range of ecology and conservation qualifications and courses, some based at Denmark Farm in Ceredigion, through its work in the field of life-long learning.47, 48 Again this is a broad topic and so the focus will inevitably be rather narrow with reviews of three institutions: Warwickshire Colleges Group (WCR) and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), as well as the Field Studies Council. Vocational education beyond South East England perhaps exhibits a less divided perspective on urban-rural issues. WCG, which includes campuses in Worcestershire, is the largest further and adult education institution in the UK, with wildlife and countryside management courses offered at Moreton Morrell and Pershore.49, 50 These take the form of a level 3 extended diploma, described as a “perfect balance of theory and practicals,” studied full-time over two years. SCRUC also provides a Wildlife and Conservation Management programme from HNC level through to masters with various study options.51 In addition, the college offers a Modern Apprenticeship in Gamekeeping and Wildlife Management.52 One of the most important issues for Scotland is the question of land reform, given the concentration of land ownership in certain parts of the country, and SRUC is expanding into this area.53

By contrast, the Field Studies Council (FSC) has a more conservative nature education and conservation agenda.54 In many respects the FSC, with headquarters near Shrewsbury on the borders of England and Wales, epitomises a British post-war mission to popularise fields of natural history learning once widely felt to be the preserve of the landed and leisured classes. Whilst there have been many achievements along the way, a challenge in the later and early 21st centuries has been converting this enterprise into something that digital generations can engage with. The FSC Trustee’s Report for the year ending 31 December 2020 reflects this and other current challenges, not least severe restrictions imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic on outdoor education.55 Yet FSC’s development may be decisive in the evolution of education and skills for a nature positive future.

Some reflections on what I have learnt

Media platforms and nature education

I began my short field studies trip into the varied habitats of nature positive education and skills with a foray into natural history broadcasting; given its importance to how many people in Britain and, increasingly it seems elsewhere, relate to nature. It is worthwhile noting that concerns previously expressed in ECOS, have more recently been voiced across the Atlantic: in fact in The Atlantic.9, 56 Last year, the American writer Emma Marris criticised the BBC’s A Perfect Planet for its remoteness from most people’s experience of wildlife (even in a country with some wilderness left), but suggested that Springwatch might be re-created for US audiences, although this would require “a dozen regional versions”.56, 57 ). I have to say that as someone who doesn’t watch TV (except on special occasions), there are some excellent nature radio programmes and podcasts, including the BBC’s Natural Histories series.58 However, my preferred media are so-called MOOC or online learning platforms such as Coursera, EdX and Futurelearn (whose course on Ecology and Wildlife Conservation has received excellent recommendations).59

Teaching natural history in schools

Returning to the subject of nature education for young people, Mary Colwell’s proposed Natural History GCSE has certainly generated a lot of discussion. Whilst most of this has been positive, an article by Ben Hoare in BBC Wildlife Magazine also reviewed some criticisms of the proposal.60 Amongst these were concerns of teachers that school curricula are already crowded and topics intended for the new GCSE are dealt with through existing subjects such as biology and geography. Hoare’s main concern, however, was that schools in less prosperous urban areas with more disadvantaged students would find it difficult to deliver parts of the Natural History syllabus, particularly its fieldwork components. He also suggested that some young people might struggle to find relevance in the subject, due to a tendency to identity nature and wildlife as primarily interests of the white middle classes.

Education and skills for nature conservation

The challenge of creating a more socially diverse and inclusive nature conservation sector is a theme that Ben Hoare has explored elsewhere.61 Diversity, inclusion and equity are also key issues for universities and further education providers.62 As I suggested before, this is not just about broadening participation but also about reflecting important differences in values and perceptions between those with urban and rural backgrounds. These differences were explored recently in BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze which asked: “What is the countryside for?”63 This question is as relevant in most other countries as it is in Britain, with perhaps too much  intellectual discourse in many universities dominated by urban stakeholders and professionals. For this reason, it was useful to compare the offerings from institutions in what might now be described as Greater South East England with those of universities and colleges of further education in Wales and Scotland. This also reflected a certain bifurcation between scientific ‘nature-positive’ higher education and more vocational courses with greater emphasis on the development of practical skills for nature conservation. I’m inclined to think that this divergence might be greater in Britain than in certain other countries where higher level vocational qualifications are more valued. For instance, there is a legacy of excellent technical education in some Eastern European countries, and consequently it is perhaps no surprise these have been able to successfully implement largescale re-wilding programmes.64

My short field studies trip (or expedition!) into the subject of nature positive education and skills was partly motivated to better understand if Britain’s shortcomings in learning about our nature and wildlife might have contributed to their historical decline here.65 In fact, the present reality is probably better reflected in two articles from 2017 which explored employment opportunities (or lack of) for young graduates. The first offered “a view of the global conservation jobs market and how to succeed in it”, whilst the second was entitled: “All work and no pay: the plight of young conservationists.”66, 67 What I’ve learnt is that British strengths in natural history education and in developing the skills for nature conservation to some extent reflect the historical weaknesses of our national approach – insofar as there is one – to conserving the natural environment. Thus we are strong on thinking globally, as evidenced for example in the outputs of the BBC and Oxford University, but less good not so much in acting locally (where there have also been many successes) but in supporting nature conservation at a national and regional level. This has much to do with a decline in standing and, indeed, the break-up of public institutions charged with these roles, as well as former career paths linked to them.

Nature positive lifelong learning

Meanwhile, an increasingly diverse nature education sector, in many respects thriving, reflects the strengths of Britain’s charitable and non-governmental organisations and voluntary associations. However, the fragmentary nature of this collectively laudable enterprise is a weakness as organisations often compete with one another for public and, increasingly, philanthropic funding notwithstanding apparent partnerships. The quality of output also varies, with some criticisms levelled at deficiencies in equipping learners with hard field studies skills, for instance.

However, I want to conclude on a positive note. The Natural Nature Service proposed during the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic and promoted by NGOs such as Wildlife and Countryside Link and the RSPB seems like a very good way to engage more young people in both practical conservation and alternative (eg more rural) perspectives.68, 69 In Wales, this proposal has recently been adopted by the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales as part of ‘a Fit for the Future Programme for Government’.70 Similarly, whilst I question the overwhelming enthusiasm of the young, and not so young, for the extent of their engagement with digital technologies and social media, I can appreciate that individuals and groups who have felt excluded from mainstream British nature organisations can use this to “Flock Together.”71, 72 I’m also reminded that many accomplished natural historians and nature conservationists are self-taught, lifelong learners like my former colleague Dr Patrick Roper, now in his 80s. His blogs – Ramblings of a Naturalist and The Square Metre – detail “encounters with England’s flora and fauna” and reflect his well grounded ecological intelligence.73 Patrick’s book on Brede High Woods published by the Woodland Trust received a glowing “nature positive” review in ECOS too.74

References

1 Biodiversity in the UK: bloom or bust? (parliament.uk)

2 ECOS 35 (2) Summer 2014 Navigating nature: how to heal our blurred vision of wildlife – ECOS – Challenging Conservation

3 Head Hand Heart (penguin.co.uk)

4 Naturalistic intelligence | TeachingEnglish | British Council | BBC

5  https://www.naturepositive.org/

6 Government commits to ‘nature-positive’ future in response to Dasgupta review – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

7 BBC announces new exciting Natural History commissions – Media Centre

8 Directing and Producing Science and Natural History | NFTS

9 ECOS 38 (1): Planet Earth III? For nature’s sake, no thanks – ECOS – Challenging Conservation

10 Nature connectedness among adults and children in England – JP032 (naturalengland.org.uk)

11 Research news – Watching nature on TV can boost wellbeing, finds new study – University of Exeter What is the best way of delivering virtual nature for improving mood? An experimental comparison of high definition TV, 360° video, and computer generated virtual reality – ScienceDirect

12 (Frontiers | Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship | Psychology (frontiersin.org) The Natural World as a Resource for Learning and Development: From Schoolyards to Wilderness | Frontiers Research Topic (frontiersin.org)

13  Introducing a Natural History GCSE – House of Commons Library (parliament.uk)

14 Debate: Natural History GCSE – 1st Dec 2021 (parallelparliament.co.uk)

15 Curlew Media & Consultancy GCSE+Natural+History+1.jpg (1650×1275) (squarespace.com)

16 COP 26: Everything you need to know about the department’s quest to put climate change at the heart of education – The Education Hub (blog.gov.uk)

17 https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/dec/18/a-delightful-day-with-david-bellamy

18 https://www.thewoodlandsfarmtrust.org/

19 https://www.ecos.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Ecos-35-3-23-Cambrian-Wildwood.pdf

20 Cambrian Wildwood: https://www.cambrianwildwood.org/primary-schools-programme/

21 https://graziadaily.co.uk/life/parenting/viking-parenting-childhood-risk-fresh-air-mental-health/

22 Forest schools are booming in the UK – here’s why – Positive News – Positive News

23 https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10247847/Elite-girls-school-Rodean-starts-teaching-pupils-outdoor-survival-bushcraft-skills.html

24 https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2021-09-02-oxford-retains-top-spot-world-rankings-sixth-consecutive-year

25 MSc in Spatial Planning at Oxford Brookes University

26 https://www.local.gov.uk/pas/topics/environment/biodiversity-net-gain

27 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institute_of_Biological,_Environmental_and_Rural_Sciences

28 https://www.bangor.ac.uk/natural-sciences/subject-areas/forestry/

29 WildCRU | Department of Zoology (ox.ac.uk) WildCRU | Wildlife Conservation Research Unit

30 Natural Governance | Oxford Martin School  About | Oxford Martin School

31 MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management | University of Oxford MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance | University of Oxford

32 Home | The Life and Mind Building (ox.ac.uk)

33 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/06/what-is-nature-positive-and-why-is-it-the-key-to-our-future

34 January 2021 – Ineos Oxford Institute to be established in the Life and Mind Building | The Life and Mind Building

35 http://www.nbbj.com/work/oxford-university

36 HERO | Oxford Biodiversity Network

37 https://www.botany.one/2018/07/trees-and-wellbeing-conference-at-oxford-brookes-university-18-may-2018

38 https://www.brookes.ac.uk/courses/postgraduate/conservation-ecology

39 Nature Positive – A leading specialist biodiversity management consultancy

40 A History of Forestry at Oxford University (euppublishing.com)

41 Forestry back in Oxford – BES Forest Ecology Group (wordpress.com)

42 Bangor University Celebrates 110 Years of Forestry Teaching | Forestry@Bangor | Bangor University

43 Abandoning or Reimagining a Cultural Heartland? Understanding and Responding to Rewilding Conflicts in Wales – the case of the Cambrian Wildwood. (whiterose.ac.uk)

44 https://pure.aber.ac.uk/portal/files/41914327/Evidence_Report_English_.pdf

45 Launch of Ireland-Wales project on effects of climate change on coastal bird habitats – Aberystwyth University

46 Home – ECHOES Project

47 Ecology   : Lifelong Learning , Aberystwyth University https://www.aber.ac.uk/en/lifelong-learning/ecology/

48 Conservation Centre with Eco Friendly Holidays & Campsite, trails & courses in West Wales (denmarkfarm.org.uk)

49 WCG (college) – Wikipedia

50 Wildlife and Countryside Management – Agriculture and Countryside – WCG – Warwickshire College

51 https://www.sruc.ac.uk/courses-training/subject-areas/conservation/

52 https://www.sruc.ac.uk/courses-training/course-catalogue/gamekeeping-and-wildlife-management/ma-game-and-wildlife-management-level-5/

53 https://www.sruc.ac.uk/research/facilities-capabilities/rural-policy-centre/rural-policy-resources/land-use-land-reform/

54 Science School Trips | School Field Trips | Art & Nature Courses (field-studies-council.org)

55 https://www.field-studies-council.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Field-Studies-Council-Signed-2020-Accounts.pdf

56 https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/04/problem-nature-documentaries/618553/

57 ABOUT EMMA | WILD SOULS | Emma Marris

58 BBC Radio 4 – Natural Histories

59 Ecology and Wildlife Conservation – Online Course – FutureLearn

60 https://www.pressreader.com/uk/bbc-wildlife-magazine/20210311/281612423136089

61 https://www.discoverwildlife.com/people/diverse-nature

62 https://www.ukri.org/publications/advancing-equity-diversity-and-inclusivity-in-the-environmental-sciences

63 Moral Maze – What is the countryside for? – BBC Sounds

64 Europe’s Wildlife Comeback Set to Captivate Global TV Audiences | WWF (panda.org)

65 Nature Positive 2030 | JNCC – Adviser to Government on Nature Conservation

66 The Society for Conservation Biology (wiley.com) https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cobi.12949

67 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/aug/17/all-work-no-pay-the-plight-of-young-conservationists

68 National Nature Service More information

69 What could a National Nature Service do for Wales? – RSPB Cymru Blog – We love Wales! – The RSPB Community

70 A Fit for the Future Programme for Government – The Future Generations Commissioner for Wales

71 https://www.flocktogether.world/

72 ‘It’s not just a white thing’: how Flock Together are creating a new generation of birdwatchers | Birdwatching | The Guardian

73 Ramblings of a Naturalist The Square Metre at TQ 78286 18846: Introduction to the project (squaremetre1.blogspot.com)

74 https://www.ecos.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/ECOS-35-1-61-Book-Reviews.pdf

Cite:

Mackinnon, Janet “ECOS 43 (1): Education and skills for a nature-positive future” ECOS vol. 43 (1), ECOS 2022, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/education-and-skills-for-a-nature-positive-future/.

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