A ‘grow our own’ food revolution could have huge educational and other benefits

Newly published research indicates that Britain has the potential to massively increase the amount of homegrown fruit and veg by making better use of overlooked and neglected space in towns and cities. We currently import a large proportion of our food, at considerable environmental cost. Researchers say that increasing the supply of homegrown food would improve diets, help those on low incomes and reduce both our reliance on imports and our carbon footprint. The headlines refer to an ‘urban agricultural revolution’. And, crucially, they say that it can be achieved “without converting areas of nature to agriculture, or further intensifying farming”. Encouraging a ‘grow our own’ food revolution could benefit children’s education, people’s physical and mental health, community cohesion and the environment. That’s a lot of potential winners.

The research, carried out by the University of Lancaster, indicates that Britain could grow as much as eight times its current production of fruit and vegetables — to around 40% of consumption levels — if all available urban and under-used green space were turned to cultivation. This is, of course, neither feasible nor desirable — we have gardens, parks, playing fields and other green spaces for very good reasons — but, the researchers say, using just a fraction of the nation’s neglected and overlooked green land for communal growing could still make a significant difference.

The benefits of eating lots of fruit and vegetables are well known. Becoming more self-sufficient in fruit and veg production, and reducing our reliance on imports, makes a lot of sense. The security and regularity of food imports can be affected by supply chain issues (as Covid has shown), political conflict (wars, trade disputes etc) and climate change (much of our fresh fruit and veg comes from drought-prone regions).

Encouraging people to get involved in a twenty-first century ‘grow our own’ food revolution would also have potentially huge benefits for physical and mental health and for community cohesion — improving diets, increasing exercise levels and boosting mental wellbeing. Reduced costs would also help bring healthier food options within the price range of people on low incomes, many of whom cannot afford to eat as healthily as they would like.

The UK is really bad for not eating enough fresh fruit and vegetables, and this could make a real difference. Even if you just put a small amount of it to use, you can boost fresh fruit and vegetable availability by a meaningful amount.

This could be about communal activity – growing clubs, local societies, communal plots. People engaged in growing have better diets, and healthier behaviours. Food growing is recreational, it counters loneliness and creates social cohesion.

You don’t want to convert more land to agriculture, as that drives biodiversity loss and climate change. But we have shown that you don’t need to: there is a lot of urban resource out there that is overlooked. We hope this research will spark conversations about the potential.

Jess Davies, a professor of sustainability at Lancaster University and principal investigator of the study, quoted in the Guardian

A modern-day food revolution of this kind — one that mobilises individuals and communities, encouraging the active participation of us all — would be of enormous educational benefit too. The concept of Life-Based Learning developed as a response to the urgent challenges we face. Nature, the environment, the animal kingdom, the physical world — in short, humankind’s relationship with and appreciation of the world around us — would be a central focus of a truly life-based approach to learning.

Life-Based Learning emphasises the importance of children and young people learning much more than at present about healthy lifestyles and the environment and nature. Such a curriculum would help them adopt the skills, values and practices that ensure they are able to live healthy, sustainable lives in harmony with the needs of the planet.

Read More About Healthy Eating

Image at the head of this article by Ellen Chan from Pixabay.

Encouraging a love of reading should be at the heart of every reading strategy

The UK government is under pressure to change the way that children are taught to read in England. More than 250 people involved in children’s education have sent an open letter calling for urgent changes to be made, with less of a focus on phonics when teaching reading. Their letter is linked to new research which says that the current approach is too narrow and not sufficiently informed by robust research evidence. One of the report’s authors says that “by focusing on it [phonics] to the exclusion of other skills, we are failing our children.” Another key criticism is that the current approach does nothing to encourage a love of reading, something that is central to Life-Based Learning.

The open letter to the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, was signed by more than 250 people, including headteachers and academics. It calls for “vital improvements” to be made to England’s education curriculum, with more time spent on reading comprehension and on encouraging children to be motivated to read and less time spent on phonics. “Teachers should be supported to use a range of phonics teaching approaches, not just synthetic phonics”, the letter says. “Robust evidence also suggests that the DfE should … decrease the amount of time devoted to phonics teaching in the national curriculum.”

The new research, called Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading, was carried out by the UCL Institute of Education. It found that the approach to phonics and reading teaching in England “is not sufficiently underpinned by research evidence” and that there is a need for “changes to the teaching of reading and to national curriculum policy on the teaching of reading.” Researchers said their findings “do not support a synthetic phonics orientation to the teaching of reading: they suggest that a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful.”

The report outlines the different approaches to teaching reading.

For the last decade the Department for Education has put an emphasis “first and foremost” on synthetic or blended phonics — children begin by pronouncing individual sounds in words and are then encouraged to blend them together to make words. This technique teaches children to read using phonetic sounds rather than letters. It means that “at key moments in the teaching programme phonics teaching is separate from practising reading with whole texts.”

The then education secretary, Michael Gove, introduced a phonics screening check in 2012 for all children in year one (aged five or six) to check pupil progress. The open letter calls for the screening check to be abolished.

A whole-language, ‘real-books’ approach, in contrast, is driven by reading for meaning. Phonics teaching is done in a relatively non-systematic way using examples related to the real books being read.

A third approach, which the report calls ‘balanced instruction’, is a mix of different approaches.

There is evidence that the phonics-first approach has been successful. According to the Department for Education, since the introduction of the phonics screening check in 2012, the percentage of year 1 pupils meeting the expected standard in reading has risen from 58% to 82%, with 92% of children achieving this standard by year 2.”

Tom Bennett, the founder of ResearchEd, said that evidence shows phonics “remains the single best way to introduce young people to reading.” He said that the report “seems to encourage … a return to the bad old days of multi-cueing and other forms of guesswork. Such approaches risk leaving children illiterate. Let’s not do that. Evidence matters, not dogma.”

However, critics say phonics training only helps children to do well in phonics tests. They are learning how to pronounce words presented to them in a list rather than to understand what they read. It includes nonsense words. They do not need to know what these mean and are judged to have ‘read’ them correctly if they say the appropriate sounds. Moreover, this approach does nothing to encourage a love of reading.

Life-Based Learning supports the prioritisation of children reading for pleasure, building on their natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge. As a nation, we simply don’t read enough — despite the many undisputed benefits that reading brings. Nor do we do enough to make it easy and fun for our children to read. We need to give them every encouragement to develop the habit of reading for pleasure so that they carry a love of reading with them into adulthood.

More About the Importance of Reading

Image at the head of this article by qiangxuer from Pixabay.

The upcoming Big Garden Birdwatch is a great way to introduce children to nature

This year’s Big Garden Birdwatch, organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), begins a week today, and it really couldn’t be easier to take part, even if you know next to nothing about birds. As it says on the RSPB website, Big Garden Birdwatch is “for everyone, whether you’re a complete beginner or a birding expert.” In 2021, more than one million people took part. Anyone can get involved in birdwatching. It is easy to start, requires little or no money and is good for you. It is also a great way for children to learn more about — and to learn to appreciate and value — nature.

The 2022 Big Garden Birdwatch takes place between 28 and 30 January. It is really easy to get involved. You can do your counting from your garden if you have one, your window or balcony, or from the local park. There is a free Big Garden Birdwatch guide and ID chart available from the RSPB website for those who don’t know one bird species from another.

All you need to do to take part is:

  • watch the birds around you for one hour
  • count how many of each species of bird land
  • report your findings online

Life-Based Learning is all about engagement and participation. Big Garden Birdwatch is a fantastic opportunity to take part in something positive, and the RSPB website is excellent for people who are looking to be more actively involved in helping protect birds and other animals. Indeed, the RSPB makes the point that UK gardens, backyards and balconies are almost three times bigger than all of the RSPB’s 200-plus nature reserves combined, which means that individual action can make a big difference and that you don’t even have to go anywhere to help out.

The RSPB’s website is packed with expert ‘how to’ guides and with ideas for interacting with nature, all from your own doorstep. These titles give you a flavour of what’s available:  

  • Making your outdoor space wildlife-friendly
  • Building a bug hotel
  • Creating a cosy starling home

There is a serious point, of course: birds are in grave danger, in Britain and across the world. According to the RSPB, we have lost 38 million birds from UK skies in the last 50 years. In December 2021 the new UK Red List for birds report placed 70 species in the ‘highest conservation concern’ category, a figure that has almost doubled in the past 25 years. Newly added species include the swift (58% decline since 1995), house martin (57% decline since 1969), greenfinch (62% decline since 1993) and Bewick’s swan.

With almost double the number of birds on the Red List since the first review in 1996, we are seeing once common species such as swift and greenfinch now becoming rare. As with our climate this really is the last-chance saloon to halt and reverse the destruction of nature. We often know what action we need to take to change the situation, but we need to do much more, rapidly and at scale. The coming decade is crucial to turning things around.

Beccy Speight, CEO of the RSPB

In October 2021 it was reported that one in five of Europe’s bird species are heading towards extinction and that 30% of native species are in decline due to loss of habitat, intensive farming and the climate crisis.

Birdwatching has many positives to it. The RSPB reported the findings of a survey that two-thirds of the public had “found solace in watching birds and hearing their song” during the Covid lockdown of 2020. And we have argued in a previous blog that birdwatching is a great way for children to learn more about nature:

You can birdwatch alone or in small friendship groups. It can be done as a family. And there is, of course, huge scope for schools to incorporate birdwatching into the curriculum — from learning about birds in science to art and photography activities, from school-wide birdwatch events to organised field trips and other outdoor work. The possibilities are endless.

Birdwatching is a great way for children to learn more about nature

Meanwhile, there is a great story in the Guardian today about retired salesman John Stimpson who, moved by the cries of swifts unable to find nests, has built 30,000 swift boxes. He has also made hundreds of boxes for barn owls, blue tits, finches, blackbirds and thrushes. “I get so much pleasure from wildlife. Building these boxes is one way I can pay it back,” Stimpson is quoted as saying.

The article also describes the successful work done by local volunteer groups to support bird populations. “Volunteers want to emulate the success story of barn owls. In 1987, these farmland birds were at their lowest ebb with 4,500 breeding pairs. Thanks to volunteers, today there are about 12,000 breeding pairs in the UK, with 80% living in human-made boxes.”

More About Nature and the Environment

Image at the head of this article by Oldiefan from Pixabay.

Sir David shows that plants are just as interesting as animals

The Green Planet, the latest Sir David Attenborough-fronted natural history series on the BBC, has earned rave reviews — well, at least as far as the production and presentation are concerned. The visuals are (as ever) stunning and Sir David is a national treasure, so no surprises there. But it seems that poor old Sir David is having to work extra hard in front of camera because, in the opinion of at least some critics, plants are just not as interesting as red-in-tooth-and-claw animals and spectacular lava-spewing volcanoes. At the heart of Life-Based Learning is the belief that young people need to be learning about and experiencing plant life and nature in a thorough and systematic way. One of the reasons is because, as recently published research has again demonstrated, our health and wellbeing benefit from contact with the plant world and nature more generally.

The Green Planet is described by the Open University (co-producer of the series) as an “immersive portrayal of an unseen, inter-connected world, full of remarkable new behaviour, emotional stories and surprising heroes in the plant world.”

Click for an easy-to-understand behind-the-scenes look at how the series was made, using lots of impressive-sounding technology like First Person View drones and robotic time-lapse camera rigs, nicknamed Triffids, “allowing the camera to travel into the plant’s world and film in timelapse in all sorts of environments.” There is a more detailed account in this online article.

As for the critics, here is the opening paragraph of the Daily Telegraph‘s review of the first episode of The Green Planet:

“Sir David Attenborough and the BBC’s Natural History Unit have brought us many spectacular sights over the years. Now, a challenge: how to make plants as exciting as animals? To have us in awe of a leaf?”

And here is what the Times had to say:

“Plants, I think most humans would agree, don’t pull on the heartstrings like lion cubs or waddling penguins, unless, I suppose, you’re David Bellamy (one for the older reader there). So in The Green Planet the music worked overtime to push viewers’ empathy buttons, although you will never get as much emotional ‘jeopardy’ in plants battling it out on the floor of the Amazon rainforest, racing skywards to claim the light created when a tree falls, as you will from racer snakes chasing a poor iguana for their lunch.”

The Guardian — whose review of The Green Planet called it “gobsmacking, awe-inspiring” — referred in a leader article to ‘plant blindness’, a term apparently coined in 1998 to describe humans’ general tendency not to see the plant life that surrounds us. It suggested reasons why — one, apparently, the primitive human brain and its need to categorise things as either threat or non-threat — and noted its effects: “Combined with the general move to cities, and then to screen-based life indoors, this has resulted in, for example, up to half of British children being unable to identify stinging nettles, brambles or bluebells; 82% of those questioned could not recognise an oak leaf.”

Meanwhile, recently published research called Lonely in a crowd: Investigating the association between overcrowding and loneliness using smartphone technologies, found that contact with nature in cities significantly reduces feelings of loneliness.

The research found that feelings of overcrowding increased loneliness by an average of 39%. But when people were able to see trees or the sky, or hear birds, feelings of loneliness fell by 28%. Feelings of social inclusion also cut loneliness by 21%, and when these feelings coincided with contact with nature the beneficial effect was boosted by a further 18%.

The Guardian, Contact with nature in cities reduces loneliness

In the drier language of the report abstract:

Increased overcrowding and population density were associated with higher levels of loneliness; in contrast, social inclusivity and contact with nature were associated with lower levels of loneliness … The positive association between social inclusivity and lower levels of loneliness was more pronounced when participants were in contact with nature, indicating an interaction between the social and built environment on loneliness. The feeling of loneliness changes in relation to both social and environmental factors.

Lonely in a crowd: Investigating the association between overcrowding and loneliness using smartphone technologies

We regularly blog about the importance of nature and the environment for health and wellbeing. For example, in December we focused on a report calculating the benefit in monetary terms of woodland visits — nearly £200 million per year.

In our blog Getting involved with nature is a great way to deal with eco-anxiety, we highlighted the growing popularity of ‘green social prescribing’ — where individuals and, increasingly, health and community services use nature to boost mental wellbeing.

And in blogs like Immersing children in nature from a young age is a massive win-win we promote the twin benefits — to education and to health — of putting nature at the very heart of children’s lives, regardless of whether they live in the middle of the countryside or the middle of a city.

More About Plant Life and Nature

The image at the head of this article is from the BBC website.

Jubilee competition encourages children to think about a greener future

The unveiling earlier this week of plans for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June included several headline-grabbing announcements — not least, for a nation seemingly addicted to TV programmes like The Great British Bake-Off, an initiative called Platinum Pudding, a nationwide baking competition that challenges entrants to create a brand-new pudding dedicated to the Queen. Another of the announcements includes an opportunity for primary and secondary school children to be involved in a giant pageant — “an awe-inspiring festival of creativity”, according to the official website. Children’s artwork, which will be incorporated into the pageant, will be expected to look to the future and have a green message.

The Platinum Jubilee Pageant will involve “artistic performers, dancers, musicians, military personnel, key workers and volunteers … [and] … will combine pomp and ceremony, street arts, theatre, music, circus, costumes as well as cutting-edge visual technology.”

The ‘River of Hope’ section of the Platinum Pageant will be made up of 200 silk flags that organisers say will appear like a moving river. Primary and secondary school children are invited to create artwork representing their hopes and aspirations for the planet over the next 70 years (matching, of course, the length of the Queen’s reign to date). The focus is on climate change, incorporating the children’s messages for the future. A selection of artworks will be transferred onto silk flags, which will be carried by secondary school pupils in the pageant.

River of Hope is linked to Thames Festival, which was launched in 1997:

Our vision is of unique art, cultural events and active adventures in healthy river environments. Accessible to all, enjoyed by all.

from the Thames Festival website

The River of Hope webpage says:

The Queen has always shown a great love and respect for the natural environment. We hope that this project will encourage young people around the world to think about the importance of safeguarding the future of their own natural environment.

from the River of Hope webpage

As part of their work with pupils on the pageant project, schools are encouraged to teach about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular how they relate to rivers and river ecosystems. The River of Hope webpage includes two free-to-download education packs that relate to Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation and Goal 14: Life Below Water.

In a previous blog we highlighted the Queen’s Green Canopy (QGC) campaign, a tree-planting initiative to mark the special royal landmark. Everyone across the UK is being invited to plant trees through to the end of the jubilee year in 2022. In the week that we uploaded the blog, an important new report had shown that at least 30% of the world’s wild tree species are threatened with extinction, posing a risk of wider ecosystem collapse. Almost 500 species are on the very edge of extinction, the report warned, each with fewer than 50 individual trees remaining.

We have also blogged regularly about the importance of engagement and participation, particularly as a way of dealing with eco-anxiety:

Children and young people need to be learning about the environmental challenges we face, but at the same time they also need to be encouraged and empowered to take practical action to make a difference and bring about change. It is a crucial step to making things better, an acknowledgement that solutions cannot just be left to distant and abstract actors on the world stage like sovereign governments and the United Nations. It is also a way to tackle mental health conditions like eco-anxiety that thrive on feelings of helplessness and disempowerment.

Getting involved with nature is a great way to deal with eco-anxiety

Official Jubilee Website

River of Hope Webpage

UN Sustainable Development Goals

The image at the head of this article comes from the Platinum Jubilee Pageant official Twitter feed.

Studying history helps us deal with conspiracy theories, lies and disinformation

Earlier this week the UN secretary-general António Guterres tweeted about the dangers of conspiracy theories, rumours and lies which are seriously hampering efforts to limit the remorseless spread of Covid around the world. The tweet included a graphic highlighting several questions that Guterres urged people to ask before sharing something online. What is noteworthy is that those same questions are asked in history classrooms day in and day out. Recent blogs have discussed the importance of history in the curriculum. History gives us an understanding of people, events and developments in past times and how they have shaped the present. Taught sensitively, history promotes community cohesion and helps us forge a sense of identity and belonging. And history also improves our critical thinking skills, enabling us to make sense of the world around us in this age of information, misinformation and disinformation.

In October the United Nations launched a major initiative called #PledgetoPause to help stop the spread of misinformation (ie incorrect information) and disinformation (ie information that is deliberately intended to mislead) online and to encourage people around the globe to share information that is based on science. The immediate context is, of course, the Covid pandemic. The Guterres tweet included a graphic that said:

Before you share, think:

  • Who made it?
  • What is the source?
  • Where did it come from?
  • Why are you sharing this?
  • When was it published?

The study of history — at whatever level — is all about asking these (and other) questions when handling and working with historical sources. It encourages us to reach careful, provisional judgements.

The Anglo-Saxons, written by Marc Morris, was published just a few months ago. Morris provides an excellent insight into how historians work and the judgements they make — particularly when the evidence is scarce or contested. Take the chapter about Offa, for example, the eighth-century Mercian king. Within the space of a few pages we read numerous phrases along the lines of: “He claimed … but this may have been just a fiction to boost his credentials”; “Given that … Offa must have been…”; “It looks as if…”; “The outcome of the battle is not recorded, but it was almost certainly a defeat for Offa…”; ‘Other sources suggest that…”

Or how about the work of Sir Richard J Evans, one of the outstanding historians of the last 50 years? Evans is a former Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge. He is opinionated, frank — read his obituary of another noted historian, Norman Stone — but also authoritative. His books distil knowledge and understanding built up over a lifetime of study. Above all, there is a respect for the historian’s craft, rooted in careful research and verification of facts, and objectivity and dispassionate analysis.

Questions of truth and accuracy are very much at the heart of Evans’ latest book, The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination. The book is organised around five topics: the notorious antisemitic publication called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the stab-in-the-back myth after 1918; the Reichstag Fire in 1933; Rudolf Hess’ flight to Britain in 1941; and the fate of Hitler in 1945.

For those with knowledge of the Nazi period, these are all well-known issues and ‘mysteries’ — indeed, the final chapter about what happened to Hitler is so much a staple of modern culture that it is probably familiar even to those with little or no knowledge of German history — and Evans deals with them all in his usual thorough and judicious way.

For me the most interesting parts of the book were the bits in which Evans draws out more general lessons about what he terms ‘the paranoid imagination’ — conspiracy theories and ‘conspiracists’ (ie people who believe in a conspiracy theory or theories and not to be confused with ‘conspirators’, people engaged in a conspiracy).

He talks, for example, of a widespread refusal to recognise reality. This is not as ridiculous as it first sounds, when the very idea of objective facts and empirical verification is under sustained assault: consider the fact that vast numbers of Americans still refuse to accept that Joe Biden won the presidential election in 2020. What matters in the paranoid imagination, says Evans, is not whether the facts themselves are true but the ‘essential truth’ that lies beneath.

The lessons that Evans draws — another is how myths become so embedded that they can no longer be discredited by facts and morph into unchallengeable truths — are as pertinent in the modern day, with its swirling mass of information, misinformation and disinformation, as they are to the student of Nazi Germany.

The aims and objectives of the Edexcel A level in history (for young people aged 16–18) include enabling students to:

  • improve as effective and independent learners, and as critical and reflective thinkers with curious and enquiring minds
  • develop the ability to ask relevant and significant questions about the past and to research them
  • acquire an understanding of the nature of historical study, for example that history is concerned with judgements based on available evidence and that historical judgements are provisional

Such thinking skills are the bedrock of history for all ages. The history national curriculum for England (for children up to the age of 14) covers helping students to understand “the methods of historical enquiry, including how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed.”

It talks of encouraging children and young people “to ask perceptive questions, think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgement.”

Young people aged 14–16 who study GCSE history develop the skills to analyse, evaluate and use contemporary sources to make substantiated judgements, and to incorporate these judgements into wider discussions of historical events and developments.

History teaching deals with the utility and reliability of sources for the particular enquiry under discussion. As a framework to guide their thinking, students are often taught to consider the nature, origin/provenance and purpose of a source, beginning with stock questions like: What type of source is it? Who created it? Why? Who was the intended audience? They are expected to consider the internal evidence of a source and the extent to which it is corroborated by other sources and by the student’s own knowledge of contextual events.

In our recent blog Why teaching critical thinking is critically important we asked: at what point exactly in a child or young person’s life do we actually, systematically, teach them critical thinking skills? History ought to be a major part of any answer to that question. The study of history helps us develop the ability to think clearly, rigorously and rationally – to hone what Steven Pinker refers to in his recent book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters as “the intellectual tools of sound reasoning”.

The image of Whitby Abbey at the head of this article is by Tim Hill from Pixabay.

Diogenes writes a monthly blog on his own website about books, TV and films. Some of the text in this article first appeared in his blog for December 2021.

More About Critical Thinking Skills

Great black Britons competition promotes diversity, inclusion and respect for all

Well done to the winners of a recent competition for schools and young people aimed at celebrating the remarkable achievements of key black British individuals throughout history and up to the present day. The competition was based on the 100 Great Black Britons campaign founded and run by Patrick Vernon OBE and the historian Dr Angelina Osborne. Patrick is a social commentator, campaigner and cultural historian. He is the founder of Every Generation Media, a social enterprise promoting and developing products and information on black history.

The aims of the competition, according to the competition website, were to:

  • encourage children and young people to be innovative and creative
  • promote and develop an awareness and appreciation of diversity, citizenship, inclusion and respect for all
  • help children and young people learn more about black British history
  • encourage children and young people to take a pride in their heritage, to which their ancestors have contributed and which has assisted in the development of modern Britain

I am just amazed with the fantastic response and quality from entries which were completed during the last Covid lockdown by schools and children. This is one of the biggest school competitions supporting and celebrating black British history to date. This demonstrates the appetite and hunger for learning and for more inclusion of black history in the national curriculum.

Patrick Vernon, quoted in the Guardian

Children under 16 were asked to look at the biographies of the people in the 100 Great Black Britons list and use the information to create “a unique and innovative project to celebrate their work and legacy”. The project could be anything from a speech or poem to a piece of visual art or music.

Young people aged 16 to 25 were asked to write an essay or create a podcast or video on black British identity and heritage.

Click here to read the 100 Great Black Britons list.

In recent posts we have argued the case for a fully diversified curriculum, engaging a wide range of subjects to develop all students’ knowledge and understanding of history and their sense of identity and belonging.

We have also argued that “the study of history should give children a sense of what makes British society what it is today and their place in it.” It is through history that children develop an increased sense of belonging, an understanding that they are part of something that is bigger than their close circle of family and immediate neighbours.

History is key to building the strong, vibrant and closely knit communities that benefit us all.

Read More About History, Community and Inclusion

The image at the head of this article is from the 100 Great Black Britons website.

Let’s celebrate these young people’s activism and sense of social responsibility

A group of young climate activists made the headlines this week by turning down a good citizen award from Rhondda Cynon Taf county borough council because they say it is not doing enough to take steps to address the climate emergency. Storm Dennis caused devastation across south Wales in 2020. The town of Pontypridd, one of the worst affected towns, is part of Rhondda Cynon Taf. The three young people are members of Pontypridd’s Young Friends of the Earth group.

You can read more about this story — and why the young people, of primary and secondary school age, say they felt unable to accept the award — by clicking here.

You may agree or disagree with their decision. Some people are pointing out that — right or wrong — it was a smart move on their part, a way to attract plenty of publicity for their campaign.

We want to highlight the story to celebrate the young people’s social responsibility and climate activism. We regularly blog about opportunities for individuals, families, schools and community organisations to get involved in making a difference, to themselves, their communities and the world around them.

Evidence suggests that active participation — doing something positive, however small — is good for our mental health and wellbeing and helps to dispel the fatalistic notion that we are powerless in the face of the problems and challenges that confront us.

The links below highlight some other recent examples.

The image at the head of this article is from the BBC online news page highlighted in the text.

Keeping children and young people safe, online and offline

Back in June Ofsted published a shocking report that described the extent to which sexual harassment has become (in their words) “normalised” among children. It was a follow-up to Everyone’s Invited, a helpline set up by the government in response to thousands of allegations from children and young people describing daily sexual harassment, both online and offline. Now Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, has published a guide for parents and carers on online sexual harassment and how they can support children to stay safe online. According to the children’s commissioner, a key message is that parents “should start these challenging conversations early … We see this guide as the ‘starting point’ for parents to begin confronting the issues with their children.”

The things I wish my parents had known… draws together advice from focus groups made up of 16–21-year-olds on how parents should manage tricky conversations around sexual harassment and access to inappropriate content, including pornography.

Parents are strongly advised to start these challenging conversations early. “Our focus groups suggest broaching topics before a child is given a phone or a social media account, which is often around the age of 9 or 10.”

The guide focuses on issues such as:

  • easily accessed online pornography
  • pressure to send nude pictures
  • sexualised bullying
  • editing pictures and body image
  • peer pressure

The guide also includes a huge number of links to resources produced by organisations such as the NSPCC, Childnet and Internet Matters.

Since March 2020, thousands of young women have been sharing their experiences of sexual harassment through the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ project. This is an online platform where girls — who are still mostly in school — have described growing up in a world where harassment, including sexualised comments, slut‑shaming and the sharing of nude pictures, is part of their everyday lives. This harmful behaviour happens online and offline. I’ve seen this first‑hand during my time as a headteacher and I know how stressful and damaging it can be for children, especially girls.

Of course, boys can experience sexualised bullying too, and when they do it’s often in the form of homophobic abuse, or through pressure to be more ‘masculine’.

From the foreword to The things I wish my parents had known…

In March we blogged about a grassroots campaign called Our Streets Now. The campaign began with two sisters, then aged 15 and 21, who decided to take a stand against what they described as the normalisation of public sexual harassment and the terrible impact that it has on women and girls. When you click on their website almost the first message you see is: ‘Public sexual harassment is everywhere. We won’t rest until it’s nowhere.’

The UK government’s relationships and sex statutory guidance, introduced in England from September 2020, aims high:

… we want to support all young people to be happy, healthy and safe – we want to equip them for adult life and to make a positive contribution to society.

However, we argued in our blog Bringing about cultural change needs new and radical thinking — itself written in the wake of the shocking murder of Sarah Everard — that relationships education needs to be a central focus of the curriculum if we are truly to bring about “a fundamental, irreversible and much-needed change in our culture”. Without a radical rethink, is anything fundamentally going to change?

Life-Based Learning envisages an integrated approach to learning that moves away from the rigid compartmentalisation of knowledge and skills into individual subjects, with the ensuing risk that much of importance is lost in the interstices between one subject and the next.

Instead, it reframes the curriculum around nine learning themes that directly address the life challenges we face, now and in the decades to come. Relationships is one of those themes.

In short, life itself becomes the ultimate focus of the learning. The LBL approach will ensure that every individual has the opportunity to know and look after themselves better; that individuals are able to forge deep, fulfilling and long-lasting connections with others; and that people as a whole live in greater harmony with the living world that is Planet Earth.

Image at the head of this article by Gemma Moll from Pixabay.

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Free trees scheme is a great way to nudge people to think more about nature

The Welsh government announced last week that every household in Wales will be offered a free tree to plant. More than one million trees will be made available, with people having a choice of either planting a tree in their garden or having a tree added to woodland on their behalf by Coed Cadw, the Woodland Trust in Wales. This is an imaginative scheme that raises awareness of the importance of nature and the environment and encourages us to think about how we can play our part in living more sustainably.

The work of the Woodland Trust involves:

  • planting woods and trees to combat climate change, build a greener future for the UK and create havens for wildlife
  • bringing damaged ancient woods back to life and restoring these irreplaceable ecosystems so wildlife can thrive once again
  • saving woods and trees from decimation caused by needless destruction, tree pests and diseases
  • caring for over 1,000 woods, keeping them open for public use and inspiring a love for woods and trees

The Woodland Trust is currently running two huge projects:

  • The Queen’s Green Canopy – marking the platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II by creating “a green legacy”
  • The Big Climate Fightback – an initiative to get the UK involved in planting 50 million trees

The Woodland Trust website includes lots of useful information and advice for people who want to plant trees. The trust also runs a free trees scheme for schools and community groups.

Trees help to combat the climate crisis. They lock up carbon, fight flooding and cool our cities.

Climate change is only half the battle. We are also facing a biodiversity crisis. The UK is ecologically damaged; we’ve lost 13% of our native species abundance since 1970 and this will only get worse if things go on unchanged.

By restoring precious habitats and planting new native woodland with UK-grown trees, we extend and create havens for wildlife, boosting biodiversity. This goes hand in hand with our planting to mitigate climate change.

from the Woodland Trust website

The Woodland Trust website itself is a model of clarity, ideal for use as a learning resource with children. It also features excellent blogs, including this latest one on outdoor Christmas activities for families.

Last week we wrote about groundbreaking research carried out by Forest Research, who have found a method for putting a value on the mental health benefits associated with the UK’s woodlands: their headline figure is £185 million per year.

We highlighted the Queen’s Canopy initiative in our blog on the Woodland Trust’s major report, State of the World’s Trees, which warned that, of the globe’s 60,000 tree species, 17,500 are currently at risk of extinction. “That means there are twice the number of threatened tree species globally than threatened mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles combined.” The biggest threats to trees globally are forest clearance for crops (impacting 29% of tree species), logging (27%), clearance for livestock grazing or farming (14%), clearance for development (13%) and fire (13%).

We blog regularly about the mental health benefits of getting out and about and enjoying nature and the environment. In our blog Getting involved with nature is a great way to deal with eco-anxiety, we talked about encouraging and empowering people — individuals, schools, communities — to take practical action to make a difference and bring about change.

It is a crucial step to making things better, an acknowledgement that solutions cannot just be left to distant and abstract actors on the world stage like sovereign governments and the United Nations. It is also a way to tackle mental health conditions like eco-anxiety that thrive on feelings of helplessness and disempowerment.

from our blog Getting involved with nature is a great way to deal with eco-anxiety

More About Nature and the Environment

Image at the head of this article by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay.

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