Grounds fit for Planet Earth

4th July 1997 at 01:00
A Martian visiting the grounds of many of our schools would be perplexed. She would see acres of asphalt and a treeless landscape. She would look in vain for somewhere to sit or the signs of the learning environment she had been expecting. Unless particularly persistent, she would assume that she had been wrongly sent to some strange children's penitentiary.

Many visitors from our own planet are similarly confused. How is it, they ask, that so little thought can be given to an environment where young people spend a quarter of their time? What kind of people can live and work there? How is it influencing the behaviour and attitude of pupils?

Luckily, of course, not all grounds are like this. In the decade during which Learning through Landscapes (LTL) has been in existence, there have been dramatic improvements in thousands of schools.

Schools all over the country are waking up to the benefits of developing and using their sites. Our own research has shown that these include: * the creation of an outdoor classroom and more effective teaching and learning styles; * dramatic improvements in pupil behaviour and attitude; * a reduction in bullying, accidents and vandalism; * the development of a better school ethos, stressing care, ownership and the responsibility, and, of course, * improvements to the quality of the environment.

In short, standards in schools improve and everyone is happier.

Developing school grounds is a long-term process, though. It requires commitment. You cannot do it one year and then move on to something else. Successful projects are characterised by their adherence to a number of principles. They are long-lasting or, to use the language of environmental thinking, they are sustainable. They tend to be holistic, looking at the formal, informal and hidden aspects of the curriculum and taking the site as a whole. But, above all, they are participative. They involve all the key stakeholders showing children can work very effectively together with adults.

For most young people, school grounds are the first public environment of which they have any sustained experience. A number of things make this a particularly relevant fact now. The new task force on standards is about to begin its work, the debate about a new curriculum in 2000 has begun and, in New York, the Prime Minister has committed the UK to leading the world in the environmental debate. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the kind of school grounds described in my opening paragraph. These places need to become the most imaginative areas for lifelong learning.

Three things need to happen in order to ensure progress.

* There needs to be a framework to ensure that, globally, school grounds are valued. In September, LTL, with the Department for Education and Employment, will be running a major international conference in Winchester for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development at which a declaration will be agreed which should help to create this kind of support.

* The UK must have a national strategy for its educational estate. The DFEE is shortly to publish School grounds: a guide to good practice. Soon after, LTL will be working with all interested parties to co-ordinate the production of a national strategy.

* We need a range of imaginative new partnerships and initiatives to help overcome years of under-investment in the educational estate. Trees of time and place is one such example. To be launched next Thursday in Birmingham, this national project will be mobilising seven million young people to take direct action to improve their school and local environment by planting trees. These will be specially selected trees, grown from seed collected locally and planted out after careful planning. Trees of time and place brings together 22 national organisations. The National Trust, Common Ground, Esso, the Wildlife Trusts, the Black Environment Network, LTL and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, among others, will be contributing to plans to create a young Environmental Task Force.

So next time you see a Martian at your school gates looking puzzled, invite her in and show her what your school is doing in its grounds with a little more confidence. She might just be impressed.

Bill Lucas is director of Learning through Landscapes, the national school grounds charity.

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