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3 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:28pm

Setting the sustainability agenda

The Secretary of State for Education explains the importance of environmentally led learning.

By Gavin Williamson

Growing up in Yorkshire – one of the most beautiful, pristine slices of the British Isles – I was no stranger to natural beauty. Consider its magnificent moors, its Dales, its coastline. But like the rest of the planet it is not going to stay that way unless we look after it. From the fires that have been causing dreadful damage in Australia, to the flooding in Indonesia, every week seems to bring a fresh reminder that our world is fragile.

Living in the UK, we know better than most how much we depend on nature and we have always taken our responsibility for this island seriously. It is one of the reasons we have been leading on climate policy for years, relentlessly banging a drum for sustained action on protecting the environment.

We were the first major economy to pass laws to end our contribution to global warming. Thanks to our actions, greenhouse gases in the UK have been reduced by around 40 per cent since 1990; since asking shoppers to pay 5p for a plastic bag there are now 9bn fewer of them in circulation than there were in 2015. We are also Europe’s largest generator of offshore electricity and have transformed the makeup of the electricity market. Last year we launched a 25 Year Environment Plan, aiming to keep our air and water clean, and our plants and wildlife healthy.

As Education Secretary it is my job to make sure that we meet our environmental obligations by equipping our workforce with the right skills. People need to learn about environmental sustainability and prepare for a greener future. Green industries that will be the employers of tomorrow are rapidly evolving. There are already 400,000 jobs in low-carbon businesses and their supply chains alone.

If we want to be at the forefront of the industries of the future, we must equip our young people to compete with those from the top-performing countries in the world. We have not shied away from setting high standards for our schools – and it is paying dividends.

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Our national curriculum now includes challenging content for every age group so that pupils gain the kind of awareness they need for careers in growing sectors like green technology. Biology, chemistry and geography programmes directly address climate change and environmental issues. All science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects provide the foundational knowledge required to pursue a pathway into engineering or technology.

Establishing a cutting-edge curriculum is one part of the equation. But if this is to translate into more jobs in green industries, we also need world-class teaching in every school. Since 2016 we have committed over £200m of targeted STEM support including through our maths hubs, our network of Science Learning Partnerships and our world-leading programme to improve computer science teaching.

Our Institutes of Technology (IoT) – unique collaborations between further education colleges, universities, and employers – do similarly vital work. They are part of a new wave of further education provision that offers higher technical education and training in key sectors such as digital, construction, advanced manufacturing and engineering.

Yorkshire and Humber IoT, for example, is working with ENGIE Fabricom to help deliver the skills needed in the renewable energy sector, as well as delivering training in new precision agriculture techniques to help make farming more sustainable. Greater Birmingham and Solihull IoT will help provide the skills needed to support clean and sustainable manufacturing growth.

We are also continuing to work in partnership with employers across the country to create more high-quality apprenticeship opportunities in green career paths.

For example, energy giant E.ON has more than 400 apprentices enrolled throughout its business. Last year it took on 60 new recruits who are now working in areas such as renewables and smart metering. It is also developing apprenticeships to work on the future development of low-carbon solutions.

But we are not just looking to the young to become environmental cheerleaders. All of us need to be ready for changing business practices in the years ahead. Young people who are just joining the workforce are likely to need to upskill at some point over the next 20 years as the world of work evolves.

To accommodate this fast-moving and dynamic landscape, last year we launched the first part of the National Retraining Scheme – the Get Help to Retrain digital service – which is now being scaled up across the country.

The scheme will help users adapt to the changing world of work, developing the confidence to seek new opportunities and skills. In this way we will make sure we are flexible and adaptable enough to seize the opportunities that a greener economy will bring. Our new National Skills Fund will build on this, providing an extra £3bn over the course of this parliament to help people learn new skills so they can return to work or further their careers.

This year will see the first T Level courses delivered to students. Like apprenticeships, these have been designed to provide young people with the skills they will need to progress into a successful career. And like apprenticeships they have been designed with employers and businesses to meet their needs. Students will be able to take a T Level in subjects ranging from design, surveying and planning, to on-site construction, all of which are significant to the success of the green energy companies of the future.

Our educational reforms are going to help make sure that this green and pleasant land is in safe hands. But more than that, we hope that for the sake of the planet, the rest of the world follows our example.

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