THE BLOG

Why Caring for Nature Should Stay in the National Curriculum

15/04/2013 13:47 BST | Updated 14/06/2013 10:12 BST

Last Thursday, I had one of the most bizarre and wonderful experiences of my life. I was on the 56 bus to work and the phone rang.

Hello, is that Elisabeth Whitbread?

My rather grumpy early-morning self growled inwardly. People always get my name wrong.

It's Whitebread, actually

I replied, probably slightly more pointedly than was strictly necessary.

Oh, I'm terribly sorry

The charming man on the other end continued.

It's David Attenborough here.

David Attenborough is of course, for most Britons, a cherished national treasure and officially our favourite Living Icon. Imagine then, in how much more esteem he is held by conservationists. To my people, he's basically God.

Essentially, I had just been slightly narky on the phone to my Almighty. #awkward does not begin to describe it.

A few days previously, my friend Matt Williams and I had read a blog piece by the nature writer and zoologist Jules Howard about Michael Gove's plans to "streamline" the national curriculum for primary schools by removing the need to teach children about caring for nature.

Much has been written about Gove's plans to reform the educational system, and I'm not going to dwell on all the other transparently terrible proposals he has presented (if anyone who knows about education can put forward an argument in favour of his plans then I'd love to hear it). Suffice to say that, from my perspective, this idea ranks up there with the worst of them.

Despite efforts by conservation groups, very many individuals and a few governments and corporations, we have singularly failed to halt the increase in the rate of biodiversity loss, one of the targets the international community had committed to reaching by 2010.

This is earth-shatteringly important. Despite great advances in our knowledge of the solar system, we still only know of one place in the Cosmos capable of supporting life. It's this one. Our one planet Earth.

So Gove's plans are worrying because - frankly - if our children and their children and their children's children are to have a future on this planet, we need to do a lot better at looking after it than we have done to date.

As Matt points out in his blog on the Ecologist website:

The greatest risk is that today's young people grow up disconnected from nature, and thus when they become the citizens and decision-makers of tomorrow, value it less than any prior generation. Underlying this is what could be seen as a crisis of values - our institutions, ways of life and economic systems fail to meaningfully value nature.

But if failing to teach about caring for nature will have horrific consequences for the children of the future, the implications for today's children are of no less concern.

More than half the children in the world live in an urban environment, and this proportion is even higher in the UK. This is worrying given the mounting evidence that a lack of experience of nature is damaging to young children's psychological and physical health.

Indeed, many doctors and academics now recognise Nature Deficit Disorder as an important contributor to the rise of mental health problems amongst urbanised societies. In the UK, where a whopping 80 percent of us live in towns and cities, it is perhaps not surprising that we have some of the unhappiest children in the industrialised world.

So Matt and I decided to rally the troops. We wrote a letter, which was published this weekend alongside an article in the Sunday Times. It calls on the government to re-instate caring for nature in the primary school curriculum for the benefit of children today and tomorrow and all the days after that.

And that explains why, last Thursday morning, Sir David Attenborough called me up and made my year: to let me know he would sign our letter (we thankfully got over my initial face palm moment and had a very lovely conversation). Almost 100 conservationists and educational practitioners have joined him. (Tony Juniper has added the letter and signatories to his website if you can't get behind the ST's paywall.)

We will also be submitting our letter to the Department for Education's consultation, which ends on 16 April.

I don't know if our actions will influence policy. But I do know now that some of the people I admire most in the world agree that this issue is desperately important. If you feel strongly about this and want to help to make some noise about it, you can sign the petition asking Gove to put caring for nature back in the primary school curriculum. Please ask your friends to do the same.