Environmental education in peril if umbrella folds

The future of environmental education in the UK rests on a knife edge while Government ponders whether to return funding stripped from a charity that provides a vital support network for the sector.

Since it was established in 1968 the Council for Environmental Education (CEE) has been reliant on Government largesse for its existence.

But now it has decided to discontinue the core funding for the organisation, amounting to £250,000 a year.

The blow has sparked speculation that the charity has been forced to declare bankruptcy and fold.

But Andy Simpson, trustee and chairman of the CEE’s business management group – and the RSPB’s head of education and youth in his day job – told edie that things had not yet come to that.

“The CEE has not wound up, it’s not finished, but as a result of the Government changing its funding criteria the trustees have very sadly had to take action to close down the office premises and from the end of this month there will not be any employed staff,” he said.

The group is still constituted, still has its members and is still a registered charity.

“What it doesn’t have is a secretariat on an HQ,” said Mr Simpson.

But umbrella organisations with dozens of members spread out all over the country rely on this kind of hub to receive and disseminate information and without it they are paralysed.

“It would be silly to say everything is fine and we can continue as normal,” Mr Simpson told edie.

“We held an emergency special meeting where members decided they wanted to see the organisation continue and charged the trustees with looking for ways to make this happen.

“In other words, to put it very simply, get some more money.”

Said as was commonly the case for these organisations, little of the income came from membership subscriptions – in the CEE’s case, just 7%.

Had received Government grants since being established in 1968 and last years was £250,000.

“It wasn’t our only source of income but it was the foundation which allowed us to employ staff and keep the whole thing going.”

Without the CEE, or something to replace it, there is little doubt environmental education in the UK will be affected.

While the Government says it recognises the importance and value of environmentally aware citizens there is little in the National Curriculum that can drive that message home.

Often it is down to visiting charities or community groups – like those represented by the CEE – to help teachers bring the subject to life and persuade young minds the environment matters.

“This coming generation will have to make environmental decisions previous generations have ducked,” said Mr Simpson.

“They do not have that choice as the decisions they make are going to come back and bite them.

“We’re in an unsustainable situation and environmental educators would suggest the choices they make will depend on how well prepared they are.

“Issues like climate change, sustainable development and everything related to them are going to be the agenda of the next century.

“If young people have no experience to fall back on, they are not going to be engaged.

“It’s absolutely vital to have something like this.”

Mr Simpson pointed to a recent statement by the Environmental Audit Select Committee that described NGOs as the engine room for environmental education in this country, making things happen on the ground.

“But for this they need information,” he said.

“And if there’s no mechanism for them to get that, then this is not going to happen.”

Larger organisations, like the RSPB, have the resources to go it alone but there were many which would find things difficult, he said.

“It’s the smaller organisations that will be hurt the most,” said Mr Simpson.

“We have over 80 constituent members and some are very small, some do not even employ one full-time member of staff.

“Organisations like that could not conceivably stay in touch and that would be a great shame.

The decision to pull the plug on the CEE’s grant has had political repercussions and sparked a Whitehall review looking at funding of environmental education.

While civil servants have now completed the review, a ministerial decision is yet to be made and is not expected until late October or November.

For now, the future of the CEE hangs in the balance.

At best, Government funding could not restart before next spring and the organisation will be mothballed until then and left in limbo.

At worst members will have to answer the difficult question of how much they value the organisation and potentially put their money where their mouth is.

But while a question mark hangs over the outcome, it is certain that if funding does not come from somewhere environmental education in the UK is going to suffer.

By Sam Bond

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