Dr Avril Rowley

Avril is a graduate of the university, she spent 20 years teaching in primary schools on Merseyside before joining LJMU in 2014 where she is now a senior lecturer within our School of Education, working with both undergraduate and postgraduate students on our primary education programmes.

Avril combines her passion for the outdoors with teaching, and has become our lead on outdoor learning, developing a new approach called the Natural Curriculum, and establishing two Forest School sites, to ensure that learning in nature is embedded into our teacher training and for expertise and opportunities to be shared with schools across the region.

It was during her childhood, much of which was spent outdoors, that Avril knew she wanted to pursue a career in education and to share her love of the world the around us with generations to come.

“I was born in Oakham, Rutland, the smallest county in England. My father was in the Royal Air Force (RAF), so we moved abroad to West Berlin when I was three years old. The RAF base where I spent a lot of my formative years was surrounded by woodland and some countryside, so I spent a lot of time playing outdoors as a child. I spent my holidays and weekends climbing trees and making dens in the woodlands with my friends and only went home when I was hungry! This was where I developed my love of nature and spending time in woodlands.

“As I grew older, I was inspired by the German love of nature and the commitment I saw in West Berlin to environmental conservation. I started at boarding school back in the UK when I was aged nine in a school which was in the countryside so, again, much of my free time was spent in nature. I wanted to impart this love of nature and understanding of the world around us to future generations and this led me to train to be a primary teacher.”

It was her teacher training that would bring Avril to Liverpool when she joined the Liverpool Polytechnic on the Primary Batchelor in Education (Hons) programme in 1990. “I was the first person in my family to attend university. When I qualified in 1994, I started to teach in Speke and then moved to schools in Kensington and Old Swan. Working in these schools opened my eyes to the inequity of access to nature for children living in low-income families and inner-city areas. I set up eco and gardening clubs which were extremely popular with the children – so much so that there was a waiting list to join these clubs. It was difficult to carry out activities at times as the playground space in these schools was very limited and there were no grassed areas to use.”

Despite challenges in finding the space and resource to bring outdoor learning to her pupils, Avril developed hugely successful initiatives, even taking six children to the Chelsea Flower Show in London to tell members of the public about their growing exploits at school.

While teaching, Avril also went back to university, returning to our I.M. Marsh Campus to complete her PhD: ‘The management of change in primary education: nine headteachers' perspectives of their management and leadership styles through a period of educational reform’. Returning to self-study perhaps prompted the move for Avril from primary education into higher education.

“I enjoyed teaching young children, but I missed the challenge of academia experienced in my undergraduate degree and PhD studies. I wanted to be involved in research about children and nature and also felt that I would like to influence future generations of primary teachers to use outdoor or nature-related learning in their teaching. I felt I would have more impact on future generations of children this way.”

– Dr Avril Rowley

Avril teaches a range of undergraduate and postgraduate students in our School of Education, focusing on primary science, outdoor learning and professional practice. She also supervises nine PhD and doctoral students. She holds a number of cross-faculty roles, allowing her to contribute to a host of projects and initiatives that support the whole region in outdoor education, and to increase the number of green spaces and biodiversity levels on campus as part of our commitment to tackling climate change.

“I lead the Institute for Health Research Green Spaces Group with Dr Kaye Richards from the School of Psychology and we collaborate with colleagues from a range of faculties to generate bids for funding to research the use of green spaces in higher education and the community.

“I also lead a research group called the Nature Related Pedagogies as part of our Centre for Educational Research (CERES) with Dr Naomi McLeod. This group brings together academic researchers, practitioner researchers (including EdD students), schools and the voluntary sector to promote inter-organisational collaboration and knowledge creation with a focus on nature related pedagogies. As a community of practice, we co-create and critically evaluate theories of educational practice through innovative and creative exploratory research, including knowledge exchange, action research and evaluative inquiry.”

Since joining LJMU as a member of staff nearly a decade ago, Avril has realised many of her ambitions in both research and knowledge exchange across the university, while sharing her expertise and experiences with trainee teachers. She has also developed an innovative new approach to ensure that outdoor learning can be woven throughout teacher training programmes and to give established teachers the confidence to bring this form of learning into their existing practice.

“In 2021 I developed an approach called the Natural Curriculum, in collaboration with Mersey Forest, which encompasses outdoor learning into all areas of the National Curriculum. The approach is now embedded into the LJMU primary programmes, and all students learn how to teach all curriculum subjects in an outdoor setting making use of nature as much as possible.

“I also developed a series of continuous professional development workshops for teachers across the Liverpool City Region to give them the skills and confidence to embed outdoor learning into their everyday practice. I run a regular Natural Curriculum Hub as a community of professional practice for local schoolteachers, outdoor learning practitioners and key stakeholders in outdoor learning initiatives.”

Alongside her innovative work on the Natural Curriculum and establishing development opportunities with key education stakeholders, Avril has been a trailblazer in helping to establish a Forest School at our I.M. Marsh Campus and now at our Mount Pleasant Campus.

“In 2015 I collaborated with Dr Duncan Martin (formerly from LJMU but currently Head of Initial Teacher Education at Leeds Trinity University) through a curriculum enhancement student internship to clear a piece of woodland on the I.M. Marsh Campus to create the first Forest School area.

“The following year I arranged Forest School Level 3 training for members of the School of Education to facilitate the integration of this pedagogical philosophy across all of the taught programmes in the school.

“When the plans were being made for the closure of the I.M. Marsh Campus, I worked with the Estates team to find an alternative location in the city centre for a suitable Forest School area. There were no sites with established woodland so, once we decided that an area by the John Lennon Art and Design Building would be our new site, I worked in collaboration with the Mersey Forest and Urban GreenUp to plant the trees needed to establish a city centre Forest School site.

“In 2020, during the first national lockdowns for COVID-19, Mersey Forest accessed the site and planted over 200 small trees to develop the area. This tree planting was part of Mersey Forest’s Northern Forest tree planting project whereby they have the remit to plant 10 million trees across the north of England from Liverpool to Hull.

“Over the summer of 2021, I worked with the Estates team to ensure the infrastructure was put in place to make the space accessible for all learners, including those in wheelchairs. Liverpool Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram planted the first tree with me and children from Pleasant Street and St Nicholas Primary Schools. He returned in November 2023 during National Tree Week with Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham to plant the 6 millionth tree of the Northern Forest. The area was also selected by LJMU to be the university’s contribution to the Queen’s Green Canopy Jubilee celebrations.”

The space is now used by thousands of students, staff and local schoolchildren every year.

“Over 3,000 primary student teachers have already been trained to use outdoor pedagogies, using the area for training in their own development in outdoor learning. Our students also work with groups of children from local primary, secondary and special needs schools who attend the area in an outreach capacity. Nearly 1,500 children from Merseyside schools have attended sessions since the establishment of the area.

“I have worked with staff from the School of Sports and Exercise Science to introduce outdoor adventurous activities with their physical education students and I regularly offer wellbeing activities during LJMU Wellbeing Week and Feel Fab February.”