Zac Goldsmith’s controversial resignation letter in 2023 was interesting for its ‘insider’ revelation about the apathetic attitude of the present political leadership towards the environmental crisis, and the paralysing effect that this is having upon all sections of UK government. This inertia is evident in the leadership that the Department for Education (DfE) is, or rather is not, providing to schools in England. The DfE’s strategy states we should be harnessing ‘children’s passion for the natural world’ (DfE, 2022). However, it is symptomatic of the lack of priority this issue has within the educational agenda that, a year later, most schools in our networks appear not to know of the existence of this strategy. As such, teachers and educators are being forced to take action themselves.
In 2017, we established a Beach School network across the north-west of England. This is a free collaboration of educators, health professionals and environmentalists who all wish to deliver outdoor and environmental education within their local areas. We meet three times a year to: discuss current research and theory; share ideas for practice; work collectively to address problems and barriers; and develop communal understandings of how a Beach School approach could look in our communities. Sessions are led by members’ priorities and concerns, and all involve a practical element, whereby teachers experience the beach environment first-hand. Previous focus points have included sustainability, creative arts, food production and mental health. A key principle is to empower teachers to engage with the beach in a way which suits their own context, helping them to develop a personal rationale for teaching on the beach, as well as supporting them with the tools and knowledge to do so.
Our teachers are motivated by the desire to understand how Beach School could contribute to addressing educational, social and health inequalities in the region. Such disparities were specifically identified by Public Health England as being prevalent across coastal communities (PHE, 2021). Beach School, as a place-based educational approach that situates learning on the coast, provides authentic experiences of interacting with the natural environment and ecosystems. This type of engagement with blue and green space is often lacking in areas of socioeconomic deprivation, hence schools themselves can provide opportunities to subvert this. We frequently find that even pupils who live within walking distance of the beach do not engage with it in their daily lives, so teachers have a vital role to play in bridging this gap. If pupils are to understand the importance of pro-ecological actions, it helps to develop a positive relationship with their locality (Sobel, 2006).
‘We frequently find that even pupils who live within walking distance of the beach do not engage with it in their daily lives, so teachers have a vital role to play in bridging this gap.’
In her Guardian article (Harvey, 2020), Fiona Harvey identified how the current English national curriculum barely mentions the teaching of climate change, and it is noticeably absent from the Ofsted inspection framework. There have also been calls for a research-informed, multidisciplinary approach to climate change, which focuses upon developing values and attitudes, alongside an understanding of environment-specific knowledge, global inequalities and social justice.
Since 2021, we have engaged in participatory research with schools to gather practitioners’ and pupils’ perceptions. Together we have identified some potential impacts that Beach School can confer, which are informing our principles and practices moving forward. These include positive affective responses which link to both calmness and exhilaration, demonstrating the dynamic emotional power of the coast. Additionally, teachers recognise how direct and repeated engagement with local beaches can create deeper personal relationships and bonding with both the place and non-human life. One educator observed how her class were, ‘gaining a greater understanding of their personal responsibility to take care of, and protect, the beach environment’. This is a crucial time to take an educational risk, and through alternative approaches such as Beach School we intend to support teachers and schools in making valuable progress.
Department for Education [DfE]. (2022). Sustainability and climate change: A strategy for the education and children’s services systems. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sustainability-and-climate-change-strategy/sustainability-and-climate-change-a-strategy-for-the-education-and-childrens-services-systems
Harvey, F. (2020, February 11). The national curriculum barely mentions the climate crisis. Children deserve better. Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/feb/11/the-national-curriculum-barely-mentions-the-climate-crisis-children-deserve-better
Public Health England [PHE]. (2021). Chief Medical Officer’s report 2021: Health in coastal communities – Summary and recommendations. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1005217/cmo-annual_report-2021-health-in-coastal-communities-summary-and-recommendations-accessible.pdf
Sobel, D. (2006). Place based education: Connecting classrooms and communities. Orion.