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Primary Education News
News So the National Trust offers 50 things to do before you're 11¾ – too right | Ally Fogg
I won't sneer at a slightly twee list. Exploring the wild should be part of childhood for everyone, and it's up to schools to deliver
It would be easy to point and laugh at the National Trust's newly updated list of 50 things for children to do before they are 11¾. Indeed, when the list was first published a year ago, several hundred of you took the opportunity to do so here on Comment is free. The list is twee, safe and wholesome. It doesn't begin to touch on the timeless urban pleasures of burying a dead pigeon in the park, smashing the window of an empty building then fleeing from imagined shadows in giddy panic, or choking on a first stolen cigarette. It's all a bit Famous Five Go on a Risk Assessment Course.
That said, as the parent of a child who turns 11 this month, I struggle to disagree with anything on the list. When I showed it to my son, he instantly ticked off so many that I felt one of those passing waves of existential nausea, a fleeting moment of clarity in which I truly understood that yes, I really do write for the Guardian. It seems my children have been woven from Fair Trade, sustainable hessian, or at the very least they have had to tolerate holidays taken on windswept northern hilltops where they can climb trees and mountains, find strange multilegged creatures, splash in streams and complain incessantly that there is no TV.
The truth is that our family is so National Trust, we have the green membership card resting perpetually behind the windscreen of our (estate) car, which probably marks us out as rather unusual when at home in Longsight. But when I asked the Flea how many activities on the list could be scored off by his classmates at school, his answer surprised me. "Probably about 30, maybe 35." That seemed a lot. We happen to live in one of the most deprived wards in the country. I know that many of his classmates have parents who work long hours on poverty wages, or who cannot work at all. Few have family cars. Holidays are rarely considered. Most are far-removed from our own cagoule-clad, white, middle-class stereotype of National Trust members – an organisation that offers no discount for people on benefits or low wages, incidentally. But when I looked at Flea doubtfully, he added: "We all went to Ghyll Head last term, remember? We did about 25 of them there."
Of course. Like many other schools across the north of England, his school had recently taken Year 6 for a few days at an educational adventure centre in the Lake District. Once there, they climbed mountains, abseiled cliffs, paddled canoes, explored caves, roamed the wilderness and gazed at the full wonder of an unpolluted sky. For many of the kids it was not only their first experience of such thrills, but also their first time away from their families, delivering a notable boost to their confidence, independence and social skills.
Until a few years ago, the school paid the full costs of such trips. With tightening budgets, this year we were all asked to split the cost, roughly 50:50. As cuts bite deeper, both on school budgets and the pockets of the poorest, you have to wonder whether this can continue much longer.
Meanwhile my younger son and his 5-year-old classmates have begun their own occasional forays out of the classroom, to parks and city farms, learning about the essence of the world through exploring natural environments and agriculture. The Department of Education appears set on removing such lessons from the early stages of the national curriculum. The proposal has been opposed by a string of charities like the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Woodland Trust, who say: "learning about caring for nature from an early age is an essential part of every child's education, and that memorable days out on school trips enrich young lives."
I couldn't agree more. It is easy to be cynical about paternalistic and prescriptive lists. It is particularly easy to be cynical when a family trip to the seaside or a forest requires little more effort than throwing the kids in the back of the car. For many children in this country, the only opportunity to have such experiences will come through their formal schooling.
So I will not sneer at suggestions that all kids should, at least once in their childhood, feel the thrill of exploring a cave, gazing at the Milky Way, finding a crab in a rockpool or cooking a sausage on a campfire. All arch, affected cynicism aside, I believe it is true. Once we're done with mocking the advice, perhaps we could get on with working to ensure that all children, regardless of circumstance and family background, continue to have such life-enhancing opportunities.