In the few weeks since Labour came to power the new Government has sent out some positive messages on the environment. Prime Minister Tony Blair talked about its importance at his first meeting with European heads of state. And Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has already declared water a precious resource and called together water companies to discuss the national leakage problem. So with the Home Office talking about a new environmental task force, the moment is ripe for some intelligent action on the subject of the environment in schools.
Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett seems to be biding his time, although he has expressed his strong concern for environmental education to workers in the voluntary sector. While the views of the new Minister of the Environment, Michael Meacher, are less well known, early signals are positive. However, both men have a problem.
The Department of Environment is keen on environmental education, but without a statutory requirement to deliver it, its influence is limited. The Department for Education and Employment is unwilling to act unless forced by the Office for Standards in Education or the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. And both these bodies can offer, at best, only advice and guidance.
It seems a gloomy scenario. But the next year could be a turning point in the chequered fortunes of this Cinderella issue.
The hope of 1990 proved false. In that year environmental education became a cross-curricular theme and we cheered. Some schools were ready, but far too many were swamped by the manic overcrowding of the national curriculum. Most importantly, the cross-curricular themes were a fudge. They left some of the most important parts of education in a cul-de-sac sign-posted "too important to assess and too controversial to be other than vague".
This thinking is evident in the otherwise useful SCAA document Teaching Environmental Matters through the National Curriculum, in which former chairman Sir Ron Dearing writes: "It is for schools to decide, whether, and to what extent, they wish to develop work in this area beyond their statutory obligation."
This will not do. If we believe something is so important that all young people should learn about it, we should say so. Look at the debates about morals and citizenship. These issues cannot be relegated to the optional hinterland of the curriculum. Their causes have moved into the nation's educational conscience.
The same thing is happening to environmental education. Organisations such as Learning Through Landscapes, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Field Studies Council now worry less about persuading schools to get involved than about the growing demand on their resources. The debate is complicated by the slippery nature of the issue. Contrary to recent thinking, environmental education is about more than science and geography. It crosses boundaries, whether geographical, curricular or mental.
If people and the earth are to survive even vaguely intact, we need a global citizenry with the capacity to understand and address environmental problems. This is no mere rhetorical flourish. We need a new kind of thinking and a new kind of intelligence - environmental intelligence.
Perhaps the last government realised this when it published its Strategy for Environmental Education for England in July 1996. It does not matter that Scotland has had one for several years, nor that it might have been more logical to have a strategy for the United Kingdom, nor even that it is thin on detail. Now we have a strategy let's use it.
But what are schools doing? Many are already heavily committed to this kind of work. For example:
* 5,000 responded to the RSPBCouncil for Environmental Education Call to Action last year
* 10,000 contacted Learning through Landscapes last year. Of these, 2,000 suspended their timetable to take part in this year's National School Grounds Day on 2 May
* Many others received awards from organisations such as the WWF and from a host of local authority initiatives
* Young people consistently demonstrate their concern for the environment.
If the scale of the activity is interesting, its growing quality is more significant. Many schools have adopted policies and strategies for implementing them. Others have an identified member of staff with responsibility for environmental education andor school grounds.
These schools perceive that the cultivation of environmental intelligence in all their pupils is essential.
So what has changed since 1990? In short, interest in this topic has reached a critical mass. At the same time, there is at last an enabling mechanism from central Government, the Strategy for Environmental Education for England, which can be harnessed in the coming months.
There is also an impressive range of national and local organisations willing to help schools, for this challenge is too great for any one department or agency to tackle in isolation.
So all that remains is for David Blunkett, John Prescott and Michael Meacher to act.
A MANIFESTO FOR ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION
Develop a strategy to implement environmental education across all government departments, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Teacher Training Agency, OFSTED, funding councils and statutory bodies, such as the Environment Agency, Going for Green, the Countryside Commission and English Nature. Set up an independent panel of experts, reporting publicly to the Deputy Prime Minister, to ensure regular reviews of progress.
* Use the carrot and the stick. Make sure guidelines are available for inspectors, local authority staff, governors, parents, headteachers, caretakers and dinnertime supervisors, showing how the environmental intelligence can be promoted. Create funding incentives for schools and organisations to show they are contributing to the nation's stock of environmental intelligence and enhancing their environment.
* Raise the status of environmental education by introducing the notion of environmental intelligence as a core entitlement into all schools and colleges. This could be accomplished as part of the review of the national curriculum in 2000. Meanwhile, a pilot scheme to parallel the one on citizenship could be set up by the National Forum for Values in Education and the Community, for which environment is one of four principle areas of concern.
* Create a national strategy for the learning environment, with a high-profile champion, to ensure that school buildings and their grounds meet the needs of young people and that all young people have direct, first-hand experience of being stewards of their school environment.
* Take pride in, care for and enjoy the environment of all schools and colleges.
Bill Lucas is Director of Learning through Landscapes, which deals with all aspects of school grounds. He is also an adviser to the Forum for the Future on the development of a national strategy for environmental education