A much-praised environmental education grants scheme that has helped thousands of schools to improve their grounds over the past decade has been axed by English Nature, the national environmental agency.
The ending of the scheme, and the Countryside Commission's simultaneous dropping of its formal commitment to education, revealed last week at the launch of the commission's new countryside strategy, have been criticised by environmental education bodies working directly with schools.
"At a time when environmental education seemed to be supported as never before, we view these developments with great concern," said Libby Grundy, assistant director of the Council for Environmental Education.
The English Nature scheme gave schools pump-priming grants of up to Pounds 500 to enable them to improve their grounds, and to develop nature and wildlife areas and outdoor classrooms. In its last year, the scheme had a budget of Pounds 100,000; since it began in 1985, 5,000 schools have benefited.
The scheme has apparently been dropped because of a reduction in English Nature's government grant. "Very difficult decisions had to be made," Charlie Rugeroni, senior grants officer, said this week. "The scheme was close to many people's hearts, and discussions have been intense."
Similar debates have taken place recently within the Countryside Commission, where education has often been seen as a political hot potato as well as a heavy consumer of resources.
"It's the dreaded E word; it's seen as a real black hole," one insider said. "There's a lack of political will and support for it at senior management level."
For the past three years, the commission has been looking at how it can best meet the information needs of children and young people in relation to countryside issues. But with no policy officer now having responsibility for developing education, this work will be severely curtailed.
Again, reductions in government grant are being cited as a major factor. At last week's launch in London of A Living Countryside, the commission's strategy document for the next ten years, chairman Richard Simmonds said: "We only have limited resources, and we don't want to do just a little education badly. "
But critics of the drastic scaling down of the commission's education work believe even a minimal amount of support can still have a significant effect.
"It's ridiculous; I don't see how you can persuade seven million children of the need for a living countryside unless there's a proper education element, " said Bill Lucas, director of Learning through Landscapes.
The cuts by the two agencies are seen as a retrograde step in the context of initiatives launched by the Department of the Environment and the Department for Education and Employment at a joint conference in February last year, when the two departments collaborated publicly on environmental education for the first time.
The initiatives included a code of practice to improve the quality of environmental education materials; proposals for a national database of materials, sites and practitioners; and guidelines to good practice, now out for consultation from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.
"Now we're no better off than we were at the beginning of last year," Libby Grundy said. "Environmental education is losing that vital underpinning that it needs from all the players involved."