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Sites for sore eyes

Bill Lucas finds plenty in the new Orders to keep environmental educators happy, while Elaine Williams visits a school with ambitious plans for its landscape. In the welter of comments about the new national curriculum, little has been made of the disappearance of the five cross-curricular themes which used to be seen as essential to the whole. For many people interested in environmental education, its apparent abolition comes as something of a shock.

To an organisation like Learning through Landscapes (LTL), a national charity, which last year helped 8,000 schools to use and develop their grounds, this change seemed very worrying at first.

Previously, schools had had official blessing to work outdoors in a range of exciting ways - work which was also reinforced by the Department for Education's own advice in The Outdoor Classroom.

But schools involved in this way should not panic. Closer analysis of the new Orders reveals there is no need for environmental educationists to rush headlong over the nearest cliff-edge. While we will certainly rue the loss of the holistic emphasis and are probably suspicious of such a subject-dominated curriculum, there is plenty to cheer about.

In practice, it is almost impossible to confine a study of school grounds to just one subject - so schools can still think holistically or at least make strong links between subjects. Twenty per cent of time has been freed up and the assessment burden reduced. Outdoor educators can applaud in almost every area of the curriculum, opportunities for learning in school grounds abound.

In English there are many circumstances which encourage language development, especially speaking and listening. Pupils need to talk for a range of purposes, to explore, to predict, to investigate, to enact and to present.

The outdoors is the ideal area for this kind of work, including, for example, sensory walks, poetry murals, street-theatre, user-surveys, newsletters and a range of creative writing. Indeed English can be used as a framework for much of environmental education.

In maths, we are particularly heartened to see that using and applying maths have been retained. There are obvious activities to do with number and measurement - such as estimating the height and age of trees, or measuring the amount of food consumed by birds from a bird-table.

Above all, children can do real-life tasks, collecting data for surveys, observing changes over time, gathering knowledge which can then be applied to the development of their grounds.

Scientific study is definitely alive and well in the outdoor laboratory. First-hand experimental and investigative science encourages an understanding of the ways in which many things need protection and conservation. The study of living things encourages children to recognise and classify plants and to understand about the life cycles of animals. What better excuse could there be to keep hens and sheep at school?

In the humanities, after much public debate, geography has become less prescriptive and leaves more to the judgment of teachers - a satisfactory result. Pupils are still required to study their immediate locality and the strengthening of fieldwork means there is considerable scope for outdoor work.

Weather and weathering studies are now only in geography, although few teachers will want to separate them from scientific activities. In the development of geographical skills there is, perhaps, most scope in making maps of the grounds, giving and receiving directions and understanding the concept of scale.

In history, in amongst the Vikings and the Victorians, there is still a strong emphasis on local history and historical enquiry. It would be exciting to think that all schools could become a local history archive including, among other things, photographs and maps of the site over the past 100 years.

Information technology provides an obvious focus for pupils to be encouraged to collect, store and handle data. LTL's national grounds survey project, Esso Schoolwatch, now being used by more than 3,000 schools, is an ideal vehicle for this kind of work.

Art and physical education have retained their obvious relevance. In LTL's experience, there are more and more examples of professional artists working with schools to produce, for example, sculptures in their grounds. In physical education, notwithstanding enhanced emphasis on team performance, orienteering, climbing and many other adventurous activities will tend to encourage schools to want a varied school landscape.

But it is design technology which offers the best arena for LTL's kind of natural curriculum. Although there is a tauter feel to the details of both designing and making, this is still one of the most content-free areas of the curriculum. There is no reason why schools could not completely redesign and remake their grounds as a large part of their design and technology teaching.

So, there is ample opportunity to teach the national curriculum in the school grounds. At primary level there is also the "day five" factor with 20 per cent of the week being freed up.

On Day Five there is, surely, the chance for schools to explore their sites as creatively as possible. Many now see much wider uses than just for the formal curriculum. They are exploring coherent rationales for play and they see the dramatic impact that sterile, tarmac landscapes can have on children - the hidden curriculum messages which they receive. These institutions have the design, use, development and management of their estate as a clearly identified strand of their school development plan. And it is a management decision such as this that LTL would urge all schools to consider.

Bill Lucas is director of Learning through Landscapes. For more information about how you can teach the national curriculum in your school grounds, contact him at Learning through Landscapes, Third Floor, Southside Offices, The Law Courts, Winchester SO23 6DL.

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