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Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): There seems to be a conspiracy among the authors and authoresses of school textbooks that publish information that is never close to being interesting. There are of course exceptions. The writers believe in formula, which dulls interesting phenomena such as climate change and questions such as why are there seasons; the mists, why; the storms, why; and why do birds know the prospects of weather change even more sharply than Penny Tranter or even Michael Fishif I want to know the weather I watch the birds rather than the BBC or ITV? Do people really contemplate the planet we live on? Are we mystified about where we come from? The Queen is worried about climate change. Did hobbits with small brains once roam the earth? Other questions include, how did the Norfolk broads form, and how do our brains and hearts function?
That is what school teaching, and higher education, too, should be about. It should be attractive, because we really want to know. The fault lies, I think, in our education, which is still seen by many as a chore, something that they really have to suffer.
School trips and field trips are an important part of education. They give us the opportunity to view our heritage, to be inspired and to be instructed. We can understand where we come from and the county where we live, enabling us to feel proud. I want to talk particularly about science field trips to such places as the Norfolk broads and the Holt and Wells study centres, which are a small part of what goes on in Norfolk. What we do in our counties can help with how we handle issues on the planet.
I have been sent evidence from the Norfolk environmental education service, and I conclude that it is struggling to advance its services to our young people. For example, it operates two outdoor education centresthe Eagle canoe club and Filby water activity centre, near Great Yarmouth. It is working with Whitlingham trust, just outside Norwich, to deliver water-based learning opportunities in the new Whitlingham country park, which has had great amounts of money from the New Opportunities Fund and Sport England's active England programme. It is being overseen by the Norwich rivers heritage trust, which is full of good folk from the region who are interested in young people going to that new outdoor centre.
From the environmental education service, I learn that minibuses are in decline, that the centre needs more support and help and that more people are unable to fund field work opportunities at A-level. Interestingly, it says that pupils cannot afford that, but I think it is the schools are having the trouble. They are cutting back and having trouble with visits and exercises in the field.
We are all very proud of the investment in education and the new schools, but why not involve young people in the schools in planning the new buildings so that they can feel proud about how the buildings can be constructed to deal with the environmental problems that are created? What a good way that would be to learn about environmental policies and science.
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Let me return to school visits. Outdoor centres are fine, but my experience as a governor of schools and from trips that we have set upand, of course, as a constituency MP; people write to us and we are lobbied by the Field Studies Council, the British Ecological Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and so onis that there are many problems. Many people are frightened by health and safety legislation. I deprecate what the NASUWT has said about the problems and its encouragement to teachers not to involve themselves in vibrant courses that are part of the education process. Other unions do not feel quite as bad.
We need to note that accidents are pretty rare. Figures I have seen from the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority show that there have been 57 deaths on school trips, 19 of which occurred during adventure activities between 1985 and 2004. The figures are not increasing, but the perception and fear of litigation remains a serious concern for teachers, provoked by organisations that ought, in my opinion, to know better. Risk can never be avoided in life, but what a chance field trips offer for students to think positively, examine risk and learn about risk and management as part of life skills.
Bird migration, frog spawning and similar issues can be raised. Why are there four seasons, I often ask myself. Do other people ask that, too? Why not five, for goodness' sake? I cannot think what the fifth might be, but it is interesting that those are questions people may ask.
There is a new subject called phenology, and I find that there are science centresone at Bayfordbury in Hertfordshirewhere the study of nature's calendar is very important. There they find that, for example, chestnut trees bloom sooner, and many other things happen at different times of the yearand they ask why. We cannot just say, "Climate change," to people without them asking, "What is climate change?" I think that we should be able to expect our young peopleour kings and queensto understand climate change, but they will not be able to unless they can observe, ask the questions and do the experiments during their education.
We often live in a world of fear, and it is time to dispel that feeling. When an Education Minister, a colleague of my hon. Friend the Minister who is here tonight, told me that people do not need to see the milky way for real because they can watch it on a computer screen, I started to think of phrases such as "heathen" and "poor soul". People need to see the thing for themselves.
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