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8 August 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 10:52am

Should climate change be taught across the UK curriculum?

The generation now in school will bear the brunt of the confronting the climate crisis. Are they getting enough information early on? 

By Ed Lamb

Severe weather has inflicted destruction across the world in recent weeks. In Germany and Belgium, more than 200 people have died in widespread flooding, with many remaining unaccounted for. Five thousand miles to the east, the Chinese military has blown up a dam to relieve floods that have displaced millions. In the United States, record-breaking temperatures and wildfires are decimating the lush Pacific North-West. And closer to home, it has felt at times as if London has been submerged, with Underground stations left underwater and locals witnessing streets become rivers. 

These events have drawn renewed attention on climate change, and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has met with key players to discuss how to reduce the impact of future flooding. Reactive measures such as this are essential, but long-term government inaction on climate change is troubling: the Climate Change Committee (CCC), appointed as an independent advisory body, noted in its annual report that just “five of 34 sectors assessed have shown notable progress in the past two years” when it comes to cutting emissions.

Reducing the negative impact of humans on the environment, and by extension the likelihood of freak weather growing ever freakier, will not be achieved solely by improving preventative infrastructure. As it stands, the UK is unprepared for climate change. In the CCC review, Dr. Pam Berry, a researcher from Oxford University, criticised the government for building more than half a million homes that are unsuitable for future high temperatures, and stressed the urgent need to reduce energy demand and restore carbon-rich ecosystems.

Although the above findings are unsettling, a glimmer of hope lies in shaping the attitude of the next generation. If we want to see future leaders invested fully in addressing the climate crisis, we should be concerned with what they are taught. So, in terms of teaching, how are we actually doing?

Compared to the US, the UK’s teaching on climate change isn’t bad at all: a recent survey shows that irrespective of their subject, nearly three-quarters of UK teachers talk about climate change to their students, compared to just 42 per cent in the US. Unlike across the pond, the vast majority of UK teachers are convinced that climate change is caused by humans and want to discuss this with their pupils, according to the survey.

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But because climate and indeed science scepticism has entered the US mainstream in the past few years, the US can hardly be the measure of UK success on this front. When we take a closer look, the UK’s policy on climate change education is far more conservative than the educators: 70 per cent of teachers feel they have not been trained adequately to teach about climate change, and the government’s national curriculum confines the teaching of climate change to science and geography, despite calls to make it central in education.

Spotlight talked to Jamie Agombar, executive director of Students Organising for Sustainability UK, about the charity’s vision for a reformed education system. Agombar voices concerns about how the current system is actually “the root cause of unsustainability”: young people grow up learning only “to recite knowledge and not to apply it”, being taught that “sustainability is only something for scientists and geographers”.

Instead, Agombar argues, climate change education should be woven through the curriculum, not siloed as an additional and optional subject. It is important for everyone because soon “every career is going to be a sustainability career. This isn’t an optional thing, and it should be applied as a principle,” he says. In essence, making climate change a central part of education will create a generation of people who recognise that tackling it is a central part of their life and career, which will benefit everyone else too.

Other countries are taking a much more comprehensive approach. Italy has made climate change education a core subject in its own right and also promotes its integration into existing classes. Mexico has proposed to embed it into the national curriculum, and New Zealand has provided every school with the provision to teach students about the climate crisis and activism. Within the UK itself, Scotland has developed a Learning for Sustainability programme so that climate change teaching can pervade many subjects in a cross-disciplinary model, but there are no equivalents in the other home nations.

Ahead of the UK hosting the global climate summit COP26 later this year, the Department for Education has produced an environment educational pack for schools to use. The Together for Our Planet pack includes activities and tools designed to engage students in climate action. It is not compulsory for schools to use any of the content, and for those that do it will only constitute an addition to the core curriculum.

Many students are increasingly frustrated by the neglected position of climate change within the UK education system, with nearly 70 per cent wanting to learn more about climate change but only 4 per cent feeling well-educated about it. Now studying in year 12, Scarlett Westbrook is a prominent climate activist and campaign coordinator at Teach the Future. Westbrook mentions that she had to write a GCSE Geography essay about the benefits of climate change on the UK economy, with another student being taught that higher temperatures might allow the UK to produce wine. It can be amusing to hear stories such as this, but they can also be seen as indicative of an education system failing to communicate the gravity of the climate crisis.

Although often met with the response that climate change education will scare and disturb young people, Westbrook says it does the very opposite: “If anything it’s empowering – it gives us the knowledge and resources we need to build a resilient society.”

When in May Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney questioned what steps the Department for Education was taking to educate young people on climate change, it affirmed that “schools and teachers can go beyond the topics set out in the national curriculum, or do more in-depth teaching of these topic areas, if they so wish”.

This might seem liberal admirably open-minded, but in practice the government’s attitude means that many schools just do not teach students how to interact with the environment or how issues like economics, immigration and healthcare are directly affected by climate change, At the same time it allows schools to exist that claim to be environmentally-minded but have been criticised for promoting pseudoscience. Neoliberalism notwithstanding, it is time to stop treating schools like free-market businesses, especially in the face of climate change. 

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