But seriously

On Monday I suggested that twitching should be one of the competitive sports which gets its two hours a week in English primary schools, but today I’ll try to be a bit more serious about the subject.

I tend to steer clear of education as a topic as there is a tendency for all of us to think that we are experts on the basis that we all went to school!

Education is training – training for life.  I guess the point of the educational system should be to make us all happier.  It benefits the recipients of the education but it also benefits Society as a whole.  We can’t all be doctors or wildlife writers but it is generally a better world if a few of us are.  That’s why we invest huge amounts of our shared money in the education system.

Some of education is about learning useful stuff – like reading and writing and ‘rithmetic – but some is about learning how to approach life.  I would like the education system to produce young adults who can think and question why the world is how it is.

I’m glad that David Cameron has a temporary enthusiasm for sport but I wish he’d develop a stronger enthusiasm for science.  I wish we had more decision-makers, from MPs to civil servants, who properly understand the natural world from radiation to food chains.  We have to live our lives according to the laws – the laws of physics, chemistry and biology.  All that other stuff – literature, sport, economics, history, politics etc – fascinating though it is, and important though it may be, is really just the human froth we have imposed on the natural world around us.  And the trouble is, and it is a trouble, we spend so much of our time thinking about the froth and not about climate change, drought, biodiversity loss. overfishing, non-native species etc

I don’t want education to turn out more professional scientists (we probably have plenty) but I would love there to be many more scientifically literate voters and decision-makers. So let’s hope that two hours compulsory sport doesn’t allow us to win gold in the stadium whilst losing goldfinches, goldcrests and golden eagles in the world around us.



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17 Replies to “But seriously”

  1. Mark,

    I think it is already a much more pessimistic situation than you have painted here, as I currently work P/T in a primary school. The school is excellent in so many ways but the emphasis is on the three Rs at the expense of much else. I was privileged to deliver one-off lessons on Rocks for Year 3 and Adaptation and Environments for Year 4 towards the end of the last academic year. The children really reacted well to these lessons (I am not a teacher so the sessions were delivered rather as if I was a guest speaker) and that confirms the experiences I had when helping with WEX events at the Bird Fair. The conclusion is that most children simply have insufficient science (and therefore, nature) in their lives these days, certainly far less than they would choose for themselves.

    I think we tend to treat science in schools as a choice these days whereas children are exposed to all that is good about TV science and nature even if their parents do not take them out there to look first-hand. The end result is that children have a hunger for the subjects that is seldom satisfied except as a treat and then only if their parents are bird watchers and go to the Bird Fair or other reserve events. The harsh realities of modern education is that older children will often choose business or media and performing arts degrees to follow in further education because it is very obvious that there are insufficient job prospects, particularly in conservation. We can be sympathetic to this attitude when we consider that the RSPB is a major employer in conservation with around 1,200 paid staff (or whatever the figure is these days) nationally and there are not many prospects for careers. However, I find the really pessimistic point is that younger people have less appreciation of science and nature and I fear that key debating on issues in the future could be dominated solely on the basis of knowledge gleaned from Springwatch and a much diminished Natural World. I hope I am wrong!

    1. I recently had an enquiry from a recent zoology graduate who wanted to train to ring birds with me; when asked about her level of bird ID she was very keen to tell me she “…knew all the common and migrant species thanks to springwatch”. At 32 I’m not That much older than her but was flawed by the statement! Whatever happened to learning through doing?!

  2. Another way of educating is to write the right books. Scrap Animals of Farthing Wood and Watership Down and replace them with fictionally nearly real stories. Watch this space!

    1. I disagree with the view that books like Watership Down are less important than a nearly real story. From early childhood on I preferred fictional stories, Watership Down et.al., whereas, as a teen and young adult, biology failed to seem interesting. But whether I was born that way inclined (nature-way), or Watership Down and the likes made me that way, they definitely contributed, and today, at 47yrs, I follow the science with enthusiasm, and find it infinitely interesting.

      I would argue that building a foundation on empathy for fellow creatures is at least as good as reality as it’s seen by contemporary science, if not more important. After all, science has only recently started to consider that it’s possible that animals can feel. I think it’s a lot easier to not care about the environment and animals, if one thinks that only people feel, think, are.

      Reason and emotion don’t have to compete, on the contrary, they make a great team.

      1. Minna – thanks for your comment. I think that different people are different – so we need both. And, moreover, I think that different people are susceptible or open to different approaches at different times of their lives – so we need both. So, we need both!

  3. Investing money and time into children’s health and fitness can only be a good thing. Investing time and money into children’s education can only be a good thing. It is when you get to comparisons that I have a slight problem. The child that come to the top because he/she can run fast, throw things or kick a ball will be supported by lottery / sports aid funding. The child that comes to the top because academically they are destined to be our future entrepeneurs, scientists, teachers, ecologists or whatever can look forward to a hefty student debt. I don’t disagree with either child and their potential but I can’t quite make sense of this comparison betwen the two.

  4. As the Chairman of one of the UK’s ‘conservation agencies’ said to staff

    “politics and policies are based on perception”

    and consequently…

    “just because something is the right thing to do doesn’t mean it will happen”

    Off to read the chapter on advocacy in ‘Fighting for Birds’ to see if I can cheer m’self up.

  5. If students want top class university education then surely they have to have the attitude that they will work hard and make good use of those years that in the past we have financed to a large degree.I get the impression far too many see it as a few years to have lots of fun and alcohol then when they have finished are frightened to start work.
    Of course not all are like this and I made sure to say far too many,what amazes me also is they study for a degree for perhaps 3 years then decide on completely different occupation.

    1. Dennis, I do not think we can forget that successive governments have encouraged youngsters to stay in education longer. The universities also view the honeypot and are offering some strange study titles these days. I am not sure the proportion of wastrels has increased but the inevitable upshot of the above is that the number will have increased. Unfortunately, it also follows that science and nature degrees become less attractive because they are harder and the graduate still ends up doing a work programme placement in Tesco. Even in my day over 20 years ago the first thing we were told on arrival for our course was that majority of those who graduated would not work in nature. The situation is far, far worse now so you can understand why students opt for an easier degree.

    2. Dennis
      I would guess that a majority of students end up working in careers that are not directly related to their degree subject but I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing or that they have wasted their time (or your and my money). It would be a good thing, for example, if more of our MPs had studied science subjects at university.
      There is a depressing degree of scientific illiteracy at all levels of society which (to take but one example) enables the views of organisations such as Songbird Suvival and the anti-raptor brigade to gain currency. An education system that effectively instills a proper understanding of science and, most importantly, develops effective critical thinking skills would help to counter this.

      1. Margaret Thatcher was a chemistry graduate. I wish she had been able to follow that calling.

        1. Just think, with her morals and mentality, what a contribution she could’ve made to the chemical weapons industry!

  6. Not all kids want to play sport-this nation has become obssesed with ultimately medal tables and winning. The crave for Gold totally turned me off the Olympics, what about the taking part that counts? Sport at school can increase bullying and alienation for some kids and P.E can be a horror story.

    I was good a sport, but I also saw the misery it caused the kids who did’nt have the ‘jock’ gene.

    Environment, ecology and wildlife should be a must for schools, for goodness sake we live in the environrment.

    Not everyone wants to run around in ovals. respect to those who do and are good at it, but kids should’nt be made to do this, a good walk in the forests or up the fells will get them fitter and they would learn something and no competition is needed

    1. I disagree that the nation has become obsessed with medal tables and winning. For many people the Olympics was a wonderful event because of the Corinthian spirit displayed by the athletes and spectators and feel good factor that it brought to the country. However, there is a clear distinction between elite sport and physical education and I think you have missed the point Dom.

      If you hadn’t noticed the UK is currently experiencing a childhood obesity epidemic and this affects a higher proportion of children living in deprived inner city areas, and those from predominantly black ethic groups. There is also a large body of evidence that childhood obesity is heavily linked to low self-image, low self-confidence and depression, all factors that play a huge role in a child’s life chances. With this in mind, is the notion that these children should be made to participate in some form of school sport be so abhorrent? Or should we leave them to explore our inner-city fells and forests?!

      Perhaps in some circumstances, school sport causes bullying and feelings of alienation, but these days’ school sports and physical education does not have to involve unwilling kids being forced to run around a running track by a sergeant major type games teacher. These days there are lots of opportunities for non-competitive sport such as yoga, but state schools need the politicians to give them the resources to provide it.
      Those children that want to play competitive sports should be encouraged as best we can as competitive sport is really no bad thing. In fact it can provide many important life lessons such as the importance of self-discipline, the ability to work as a team, how to win with humility and how to lose with grace and dignity.

      I think it’s refreshing that there appears to be both momentum and cross party consensus towards dealing with an issue which is a stain upon our society. Furthermore, the more we can improve the fitness of the nation, the more we will reduce pressure on the NHS, which in turn may mean there is more money available to spend on nature conservation.

  7. Fortunately it only takes an event running over 20 billion pounds to make the nation feel good. All jolly good then 🙂

    Excuse me and cynical side, if people need this to make the nation feel good then we are truly screwed.

  8. I will add also that it always saddens me to see so many people will get excited and apparently ‘pull together’ about football and one off events like the Olympics yet as this article shows very few will get behind say a town being flooded or a native animal being culled.

    Let me ask if the same euphoria would have been present if say we had competed valliantly but got no golds? Because there is nothing more than the man down the pub likes is Britain (mainly England, the Scots and Welsh are allowed to play to sometimes-infact many people have finally realised that Scotland really does give something to Great Britiain….not its wonderful wildlife and stunning scenary, people and culture ……but a win at tennis no less!!!!) giving jonny foreigner a good bashing.

    I’m a cynic who managed to find a rather nice rock to hide under (call it say, Game of Thrones) whilst the circus came to town. Sorry-I think our planet comes first, sport somewhere behind literature, the arts, cinema..things we have been gold at for centuries not just two weeks.

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