A government promise to give schools £10 million to help children get “close to nature” has been given a “cautious welcome” amid criticisms that it isn’t enough money to make a difference in the face of cuts.
The ’25-year environment plan’ announced last week includes pledges to help primary schools “create nature-friendly grounds” and support more contact with local natural spaces, especially for children from disadvantaged areas.
The ‘Nature-friendly schools programme’ will create “school grounds that support learning about the natural world and also keep children happy and healthy”, and plans for the first schemes will be rolled out from this autumn.
Another programme, which will support schools and pupil referral units in disadvantaged areas to establish “progressive programmes of nature contact”, will be opened to schools from autumn 2019.
However, the plans have been met with concerns over funding and allegations of “tokenism” due to the amount of money being pledged.
We know that teachers are doing amazing work to bring children the benefits of outdoor spaces
The English Outdoor Council (EOC), an umbrella body for more than 300 organisations involved in outdoor learning, gave a “cautious welcome” to the proposals.
Its boss Martin Smith was “pleased” the government had recognised both the “importance of connecting children to the outdoors” and concerns over the “limited and inequitable access” to nature, but warned that the initiative had to “sit alongside an accountability framework” for schools that “values and supports” outdoor learning.
“Through our members we reach nearly all schools in the country and we know that teachers are doing amazing work to bring children the benefits of outdoor spaces,” he added.
“But we also hear how they are struggle with accountability measures and, although £10 million has been allocated with the plan to support this work, there are still tremendous funding pressures felt by schools.”
One primary school that has already placed an emphasis on outdoor learning is the Christ Church CE School in Battersea, which has spent almost a decade creating outdoor areas in which its pupils have lessons at least once a week, learning about gardening and nature as well as providing spaces for workshops with visiting authors and artists.
Its headteacher Colette Morris said the garden appealed to different children in different ways, with more able pupils keen to challenge themselves and learn new skills, but giving confidence to those who are less certain in their learning and allowing a “safe space” for those with emotional challenges.
However, she is concerned that the plans represent “tokenism”. She believes it would be more helpful if money were specifically set aside in school budgets for outside learning.
“It depends what they are going to do with that £10 million exactly. It’s not very much,” she said. “Sometimes they just put money into something but they don’t seem to know what the outcome is they want.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ plans also include attempts to make it easier to take children on school trips and support the educational outreach work of community forests.
It will also expand of “care farming”, where farms are used to provide health, social or educational services, by 2022, with an aim of trebling the number of available places for children and adults to 1.3 million a year.