History, Edmund Burke wrote, is ‘a pact between the dead, the living and the yet unborn.’ Nowhere is this pact more important than in our relationship with nature.
Conservative governments have always sought to protect and enhance the natural environment – whether through Disraeli’s Public Health Act, which sought to limit the environmental impact of the industrial revolution; or Eden’s Clean Air Act, which helped lift the London smog. We shouldn’t forget it was Margaret Thatcher’s drive to cut sulphur emissions that stopped the acid rain which was damaging our woodlands and killing the fish in our lakes and rivers.
It’s not just a safe and secure environment we are obliged to bequeath our children – but a love of nature, an appreciation of natural history, and an awareness of how human behaviour affects the world around us.
Last autumn, I visited Holme Grange preparatory school in Berkshire. Holme Grange is a successful independent school with a difference – the ‘forest school’. Developed in Sweden in the 1950s, the forest school model sees children taught outside, in the woods, within nature. Rather than constantly sitting at their desks or in front of computer screens, children at Holme Grange are often outdoors. Nature isn’t an afterthought but an integral part of school life. The school’s centrepiece is the ‘Teaching, Leadership and Communication Hub’ – a vast open air canopy which can accommodate classes of up to 40 pupils around a log fire. Children’s education is enhanced and enriched through their contact with the natural world.
It is inspiring to see – but the opportunity to be immersed in nature should not be restricted to children whose parents can afford to pay school fees. I want state schools across the country to look at Holme Grange and think: ‘How can we do that?’
That is why our reforms are putting nature back at the heart of school life. From September next year, maintained schools will be teaching a new national curriculum. Our abiding aim has been to help every child secure the knowledge they need to participate as 21st century citizens – and a crucial part of that is making sure children leave school with a thorough grasp of the fundamental natural processes that sustain life.
Whether in geography, biology or chemistry, we are ensuring children learn about – and experience – nature. Children should know the names of different plant and animal species; they should understand natural processes such as photosynthesis and reproduction; and they should know about how physical and human geography changes over time.
In science, we’ve ensured pupils will be taught to identify and describe the functions of different parts of flowering plants, such as roots, stems, trunks, leaves and flowers. They will explore what plants need in order to survive – air, water, light, nutrients and room to grow. They will look at the role flowers play in the life-cycle of plants; studying pollination, seed formation and seed dispersal. They will be taught how to use classification keys to help group, identify and name a variety of living things in their local and wider environment, and they will understand how environments can change, sometimes posing dangers to nature.
The science of evolution and inheritance will be covered in detail. Pupils will learn how living things change over time, and what fossils can tell us about living things that once inhabited the Earth. They will be taught how animals and plants adapt to suit their environment and how that adaptation ensures survival and leads to evolution.
We don’t just want children to learn about nature but to venture outdoors and see it for themselves. There will be opportunities at all ages for learning outside the classroom. Throughout the curriculum, teachers are encouraged to make use of their school’s local environment.
Children will have the opportunity to observe plants and animals in their natural habitats from the very first year of school. They will be able to watch flowers and vegetables they themselves have planted grow; examine how habitats change through the year; and analyse life-cycle changes in the natural world around their school. They will be able to grow new plants from seeds, stem and root cuttings, tubers and bulbs. And they will be able to study changes in animals as they grow – for example, by hatching and rearing chicks – and compare how different animals develop.
In geography, there is a renewed focus on physical geography, including humans’ impact on the world around us. Pupils will learn about how landscapes develop and change over time and the impact on nature of weather and climate. They will study the similarities, differences and links between places on opposite sides of the globe.
Schools will have to be much more ambitious in the way they use field trips. Children as young as 5 will start using fieldwork to study the geography of their school, its grounds, and the surrounding environment. By the age of 11, children will have observed, measured, and recorded the human and physical features in the local area. They will be taught to use methods such as sketch maps, plans and graphs, as well as the latest digital technologies. At secondary school, pupils will use field work in different areas to collect, compare and contrast data to analyse different environments.
One way we all interact with the natural world is through the food we eat. The School Food Plan – brilliantly crafted by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent – sets out not only how we need to improve the quality of food on children’s plates but also how we must ensure they understand where their food comes from. Drawing on the Plan, we are making sure that from September next year, all children up to the age of 14 will be taught how to cook. They will learn about where ingredients come from, how the seasons affect foods in different ways, and what constitutes a balanced diet.
All these changes – in science, geography and cooking – will help schools nurture happier, healthier children; in touch with, and closer to, the natural world around them. That way we are helping fulfil Burke’s pact – and, hopefully, leaving the natural world in safer hands.
This is Michael Gove’s essay in the Conservative Environment Network’s pamphlet, Responsibility and Resilience: What the Environment means to Conservatives.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.