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Interview - 'There's more to life than literacy and numeracy'

Andy Simpson, head of youth and education at the RSPB, believes hands-on learning is the best way to encourage children to care about the natural world

Andy Simpson, head of youth and education at the RSPB, believes hands-on learning is the best way to encourage children to care about the natural world

You used to be a teacher. What made you want to move?

Research shows the key ingredient that turns many young people on to nature is an enthusiastic adult. The opportunity to use my enthusiasm (for wildlife) in a wider context other than the children I saw every day was too good to miss.

So how did you get your role?

I moved from teaching into working for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. What attracted me was overseeing the 40,000 children that were coming there every year and having a chance to be part of their education. I think people thought I was a bit mad at the time, but in hindsight it was terrific. I moved from there to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). I was one of the architects of the RSPB offering education on its reserves to children.

How important is it for children to learn about the environment?

You can't simply substitute a TV programme or an Xbox or even a book for the essential experience of being there, seeing it, touching it. If I challenge you to tell me what you did in maths when you were eight, you've probably forgotten, but I bet there are experiences, places that you went, things that you did as a child that are vivid in your memory now.

Is education limited if we restrict teaching to the classroom?

If we don't allow children to have these experiences then we diminish the chances of them caring and ultimately wanting to have stewardship of the natural world. Getting children to make the right decisions about climate change is an ideal entry point. It is much better for a child to say "I'm switching this light off because it helps to look after the birds and animals I care about", than to say "I'm switching this light off because I'm terrified we're all going to drown, we're all going to fry".

What education initiatives have you set up at the RSPB?

The Big Schools' Birdwatch is done by 500,000 people, of which nearly 100,000 are children. It is a simple exercise where we ask people to look out of their window and tell us what they can see. From our perspective, it is actually giving us valuable scientific data: the dynamics of which species are increasing, which species are decreasing.

Is there more of a response from rural or city schools?

Often it is more urban schools that do it. Even if a school is in a completely built-up environment with absolutely no vegetation at all, birds are still the accessible form of wildlife. Even if your birdlife is very poor, some schools can still take a walk of a couple of hundred yards to the local park and watch them there.

Is there too much bureaucracy surrounding school trips?

There is currently a great fear of accidents and paedophiles, which has meant children's freedom to explore is very much constrained. Additionally, the bureaucracy of risk assessments has created a climate where it is easier for teachers not to bother. RSPB tries to lead from the front, putting a lot of our resources into our Living Classrooms, offering education outside. On these visits, you have our trained staff with you for the duration and you have one staff member for every 15 children, which means every child that comes gets individual attention.

Should outdoor learning be given more emphasis?

If you want young people engaged with society, the community and the places they live, these are important things. It's not to the detriment of the other things, but there is more to life than literacy and numeracy. Education swings like a pendulum, from prescription to liberalism, and we are coming back from a difficult period of intense prescription, meaning this kind of experiential education suffers.

Do you ever miss teaching?

Of course. My world is budgets, spreadsheets and meetings. Hopefully, if I do my job many children are going to get these experiences, and that is the important thing. But there is a pang. I'd like to go back and be a teacher, which is the greatest job in the world. The magic moments, when you know you've made a difference, are what make teachers get up in the morning.

What would you do as Schools Secretary for a day?

I would institute a programme which recognised that experiential education was vital. I would define a whole range of experiences with experts that I thought were essential for children to have, and I would ensure that the education system delivers it.

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?

On one of our reserves a few years ago, a bus arrived and a couple of girls refused to get off the coach. They said they were terrified that there were going to be alligators. It's very funny, but it's very sad that these children had seen a lot of stuff about exotic animals, they'd heard that they were going to a nature reserve and put two and two together.


Present: Chair, Natural Environment sector of Learning Outside the Classroom Council; deputy chair, Defra's Biodiversity Education and Public Understanding group; member of the ZSL advisory committee

2005-: Head of youth and education, RSPB

1995: Education policy manager, RSPB

1988: RSPB HQ, project manager

1980: RSPB education officer, Newcastle

1978: Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Lancashire

1976-1978: Primarymiddle school teacher

1976: Qualified as a teacher, Edge Hill University.

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