An agent for the environment

15th February 2008 at 00:00
In our series on professionals looking in on education from the outside, Ewan Aitken meets Duncan McLaren.

I met a tired Duncan McLaren in his office late one afternoon, tired because his second child, Emelie, had been born the previous day. Paternity leave follows soon but, before that, it's down to business in the matter-of-fact way for which the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland is known.

Though born of a Scottish father, Mr McLaren was schooled in Nuneaton, where his parents had settled after the war. He began at the local primary and junior schools but, aged nine, his mother, suspicious of the new comprehensive system, presented him for the entrance exam to a grant-aided Coventry school and he won a scholarship.

Requiring a daily 10-mile trip to school, he was "fast streamed", pushed to do his O-levels at 13 with an eye on Oxbridge. Though keen to emphasise that it wasn't all bad, Mr McLaren says simply: "I would not put a child through that."

It was an experience that was to shape much of his thinking about education as a whole experience which, he argues, needs the informal and extra-curricular as much as the formal and the curricular.

Mr McLaren sees a tension in schools between the pressure to test how effectively the core curriculum has been assimilated and giving room for the informal development of the child through appreciation of the environment from things such as field trips, camps and outdoor lessons.

He argues that, if children are to be environmentally literate, they need also to be scientifically and economically literate. He recognises that this needs core skills of literacy and numeracy, but says these things are only meaningful if they help pupils engage with the world of which they are part.

Whatever deficits he sees in schools, however, is tempered by the enthusiasm of teachers who contact FoES in large numbers for advice and information about environmental issues.

Mr McLaren's ideas are made real in the "Read for the Future" programme, sponsored by FoES and Scottish Power. Children get sponsored to read books, the concept being that they learn there are ways to find entertainment other than sitting in front of electrical appliances.

Thus, Scottish Power can argue that it is helping energy reduction and also encouraging healthy lifestyles, while FoES can claim to be encouraging literacy core skills (and receiving sponsorship money).

I suggest this is almost subliminal and Mr McLaren does not disagree. But it is built, he argues, on his belief that the effectiveness of education goes beyond the lesson or simply the knowledge transferred.

A similar philosophy is applied to the partnership with Queen Margaret University in delivering the "agents for environmental justice" certificate programme. Activists who otherwise would not get to university can gain a qualification; it is about gathering knowledge, but the real benefits are regarded as developing core skills which allow them to marshall the facts of an issue and spread the environmental word.

Schools, Mr McLaren believes, are a necessary but not sufficient vehicle for making progress on climate change. Education was crucial for young people to learn how to engage with the subject and to be made aware that every decision about their lifestyle would make a difference. Education, however, was just the foundation for making other changes that would make the real difference.

This could include raising awareness by such means as the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth. But is this not just promoting the propaganda of one world view in schools? He smiles and says simply: "Young people face propaganda every day; it's called advertising. At least this is honest propaganda".

Mr McLaren goes on to suggest that even the controversy over the film can be turned into an educational experience, through sparking discussion about whether the film should be shown.

Everything is an opportunity for Mr McLaren but, he suggests, for education to create opportunities, schools need to offer as much space as possible for what are often called soft skills; and those are to be found in the informal spaces, the places of creativity and the development of capacities, as much as they are in the classroom and the exam hall.


1965: Born Nuneaton

1983-87: Pembroke College (Cambridge) and Wye College (University of London); degrees in geography, rural resources and environmental policy, and business administration

1987-88: environmental and economic consultant

1988-2000: researcher and research co-ordintor, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland

2000-03: policy director, FoE England, Wales and Northern Ireland

2003- : chief executive FoE Scotland Member, UK Green Fiscal Commission, UK research councils' energy programme scientific advisory committee and board of Changeworks (formerly Lothian and Edinburgh Environment Partnership) Author, Tomorrow's World: Britain's share in a sustainable future (1998)

Duncan McLaren holds a silent alarm vigil outside Gleneagles Hotel, venue for the G8 climate change summit. Photograph: Colin Hattersley.

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