His criticism of teachers, made last week in Manchester, was echoed by Sir Angus Stirling, the director-general of the National Trust. Both were speaking at the trust's centenary countryside conference, held to stimulate debate about the trust's future.
Addressing 200 environmentalists, civil servants, academics, farmers, and senior trust staff, Jonathon Porritt, a former secondary teacher, said: "The education of young people about land use, land management, stewardship and other countryside issues is in a deplorable state."
Suggesting that this should be a top priority for the trust, he declared: "Our greatest challenge is to enable young people to make sense of the planet. But education for sustainability cannot be done in the classroom, it has to be done in situ, close to the earth."
He believed the National Trust was uniquely placed to help the next generation. "If it can make them understand not just our dependence on nature, but also our oneness with it, then the trust will have done us all a tremendous service," he said.
Sir Angus Stirling, in an interview with The TES, agreed with his critic. "Deplorable is right. When I address schools I often find that children know nothing about the countryside. They've learnt about global issues, but nothing about what goes on in their own backyard."
The trust itself came under attack from John Gummer, the Environment Secretary. In a keynote speech to the conference he accused it of failing to catch young people's interest, through weaknesses in presentation.
"The trust is losing some wonderful opportunities to teach because young people are not being introduced effectively enough to its properties," he said. "The presentation is often too cosy, and the temptation is to leave it like that." He cited the high quality of presentation at London's Science Museum, and at the new Nelson Gallery in the National Maritime Museum. "That's how you make things come alive," he said. "I'd never understood the Battle of Trafalgar before."
Sir Angus admitted that: "Our presentation is still a bit staid and geared to the older generation in some properties." He revealed that the trust is applying to the Millennium Commission for a grant of "several million pounds", so that it can introduce interactive technology at selected properties.
The National Trust's new consultative report Linking People and Place is available from David Russell, National Trust, 33 Sheep Street, Cirencester, Glos G17 1QW, price Pounds 6 plus Pounds 2 postage. Comments welcome until the end of January 1996.