Connecting children to the ocean

Primary school children take part in UK’s first Ocean curriculum, written by teachers in Devon with help from world’s leading scientists 


As world leaders grapple with climate catastrophe at COP27, the UK’s first Ocean Curriculum is giving Devon primary school children opportunities to learn how the ocean is instrumental in supporting life on our planet, and what they can do to help preserve it.    


The new curriculum was the idea of Stuart Bellworthy, CEO of Connect Academy Trust in Devon, which has 3,500 children across eight primary schools, all very close to the coast.   


With rising concern amongst children and adults about climate change, over-fishing, and the abundance of plastics in our seas, Mr Bellworthy was keen to find a way to connect children with the ocean.   


Based in Plymouth, with access to some of the world’s leading marine research institutions on his doorstep, Mr Bellworthy’s  initial idea in 2019 was just to create links with local scientists. However, with several marine biologists on the trust’s staff, this soon turned into plans to develop a full-blown Ocean Curriculum, covering the seven principles of ocean literacy*, with age-appropriate modules for all pupils from ages four to 11.   


“We wanted to help the children in our schools to have a deeper appreciation of the ocean and for them to understand how looking after our ocean will drive the future of our planet, as well as what they can do to make a difference”.  explained Mr Bellworthy.   


Fast forward three years, and the trust has just celebrated the launch of its curriculum with a staff training day at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth.  Elaine Hayes, CEO of the new National Marine Park in Plymouth, welcomed the teachers and spoke about the importance of inspiring youngsters to embrace ocean conservation:  


“We need to think longer and harder about how we can embed ocean literacy into all aspects of school life”, Ms Hayes said. “Education can help people make better choices about how they co-exist with nature now and in the future. Through this new curriculum, over 3,500 children will grow up knowing more about the ocean than previous generations. We need a paradigm shift in thinking as we move forward.”  

The curriculum was developed by teachers and leaders working at Connect Academy Trust in collaboration with scientists at the Ocean Conservation Trust, Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Marine Biological Association.  It offers a hands-on introduction to all aspects of ocean science through a carefully structured and progressive work programme that runs alongside each school’s existing curriculum.  The vision is for each child to cover, over their time in Primary school, 12 units of work, which look at different aspects of the Ocean. 


There are two types of unit or work – some are deep dives, to be covered intensively over a few days, and some cross-curricular for over a half term. Each two-year cycle covers agreed focuses, such as a particular ocean basin – the Mediterranean, for example, a creature study – from Molluscs to Mammals, a comparison study – for example looking at fishing in two different localities, and ocean themes such as climate and the water cycle . Careful mapping and progression of complexity ensures that, over time, the curriculum will build upon what has been previously covered.   


Claire Hardisty, Head Teacher at Thornbury Primary School in Plymouth, who was closely involved in developing the curriculum, said: “It is absolutely our purpose as educators to ignite a passion for the ocean, and to foster a love for learning. We need to understand how our oceans work so that we can protect our future on the planet.  Our children develop their sense of responsibility for the world they live in, through this innovative and inspiring curriculum.” 


Several of the modules have already been piloted in the classroom and feedback so far is positive, according to Mr Bellworthy: “All the units of work we have trialled have been really popular”, he said. “The children love learning about the ocean – they have insatiable questions and opinions, and studying the ocean gives them a fascinating introduction to so many aspects of science, in a way that they can really relate to. Thanks to the expert input of all of our science partners, we have an amazing new curriculum that is already inspiring the next generation.”   


It’s rare for schools to write their own new curriculum like this. While they do have some flexibility around how and what they teach, in practice many focus solely on the national curriculum and lack the resources to develop larger units of work outside of that.   


“It’s one of the advantages of being a multi-academy Trust”, explained Mr Bellworthy. “We have been able to pool resources and expertise across the schools in our Trust. Several teachers in our schools have a background in marine biology so that has helped enormously. Each of our schools has a nominated Ocean Champion amongst its staff who is responsible for developing material and introducing the units of work into their own school.”  


As a result of this innovative work, Connect has been awarded the prestigious European Blue School status, an EU initiative to bring the ocean into the classroom, the only UK education provider to hold this accolade.  


For Mr Bellworthy, the journey continues as he plans to share Connect’s Ocean Curriculum with other schools in the area and across the country.