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Can a new university breathe life into Britain’s climate education? 

Black Mountains College in Wales, and its co-founder Ben Rawlence, is advocating a wartime-style overhaul of the way people are taught about the environment.

By India Bourke

Even before the United States entered the Second World War, American schools were preparing students for conflict. In the build up to 1941 and beyond, curriculums were overhauled to meet wartime needs: pupils were taught to raise funds, plane-spot, “dig for victory” and extol democracy’s virtues within the classroom and beyond. Now, argues Ben Rawlence, co-founder of Britain’s newest university, the global climate emergency requires a similar response.

The new Black Mountains College, nestled in its namesake hills in the Brecon Beacons national park, south Wales, is a radical attempt to address this need head on. From September, the college will welcome students on to an accredited three-year degree course called, Sustainable futures: arts, ecology and systems change. Its four full-time staff and 12 part-time tutors already offer NVQs in regenerative horticulture and forestry, as well as short courses on everything from rainwater harvesting to printmaking for activism.

The aim of the institution, Rawlence explained when we met in London earlier this month, is to create an “army” of interdisciplinary thinkers, capable of helping their future workplaces adapt to the new climate reality. “Education is the point of transmission where society reproduces itself, so if you want a handbrake turn in how we approach [the climate crisis], it has to come from there.”

By immersing students in real-world challenges, such as exploring how heritage grains produced at the local Talgarth water mill link to macroeconomics, the new BA advocates a problem-based approach to learning. It is no good “training people to do magical things” like building wind farms or AI, the author and former Liberal Democrat speechwriter argues, if students are not also placing them in wider contexts, such as a supply chain’s impact on nature.

Furthermore, by sending third-year students on to placements with large, corporate institutions, such as banks or retailers, the college hopes to spread its influence beyond its classroom walls (or fields). Highly educated CEOs already know the science of climate change, Rawlence pointed out, but what they don’t yet always understand is how to effect the necessary reform. The presence of students, it is hoped, can be a catalyst for change.

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But can a single institution, however well-intentioned, hope to produce the kind of system change that the climate crisis requires? It can’t on its own, Rawlence frankly admitted. Nor, he noted, can simply adding new subjects within schools. The A-level in environmental science offers only a “miserable” gesture at climate education, he argued, while the new GCSE in natural history doesn’t recognise that “climate change is not a subject, it’s a new era”.

[See also: How to solve the UK’s heat pump problem]

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The Climate Education Bill currently making its way through parliament hopes to tackle this general paucity of climate content. The bill, co-authored by the teenage activist Scarlett Westbrook and the Labour MP Nadia Whittome with support from the Teach the Future campaign, is a critical response to the 2021 climate strategy by the then education secretary Nadhim Zahawi. The strategy offered little in terms of curriculum change, when in fact the climate crisis needs to be woven throughout the curriculum “like a golden thread”, Whittome told Spotlight.

Alongside new content, however, the climate crisis also requires a shift in how subjects are taught, Rawlence and others argue. Black Mountains College draws on the ideas of the early 20th-century American education reformer John Dewey, who advocated closing the gap between learning and lived experience, and harks back to another educational experiment and another Black Mountain College, this time in mid-century North Carolina.

The prior Black Mountain College was set up by avant-garde US artists and academics, as well as refugees from the Bauhaus art school in Nazi Germany, and became famed as a haven for creative exploration and progressive thought. High-profile figures such as the dancer Merce Cunningham and physicist Albert Einstein flocked to its lakeside shores, and spawned concepts such as R Buckminster Fuller’s energy-saving geodesic domes. “Coming together, standing together, working together,” was how, in 1935, its rector Josef Albers described the college’s symbolic ring motif.

Other educational experiments have kept alive this arts-based approach over the years, and emphasised its ecological links. In the village of Dartington in Devon, degree- and master’s-level courses at the Schumacher College merge the teachings of the economist EF Schumacher with the legacy of practice-based learning established at Dartington College of Arts. Projects like the social enterprise ThoughtBox, meanwhile, are envisioning new ways to help empower young people in their climate response.

Whether the new Black Mountains College’s BA course succeeds in creating a stronghold of progressive education for the climate age remains to be seen. “The challenge is to be radical and relevant at the same time,” Rawlence reflected. But start-up funding from the National Lottery community fund (Wales), the Brecon Beacons national park, and private individuals has given the project a launching set of wings. Beyond the institution’s walls, Rawlence is encouraged by a new curriculum that is being implemented in Welsh schools, based on a review by the education expert Graham Donaldson.

In contrast with the Department for Education in England’s website, which describes its top priority as the need to “drive economic growth”, the Welsh government puts emphasis on giving young people the skills “to make the most of life”. Plans for the curriculum have replaced traditional subject boundaries with wider “learning areas”, and given teachers more freedom in what and how they teach. “What we need is Donaldson with bells on,” Rawlence said of the future of British education policy as a whole. The BA hopes to demonstrate what that would look like.

In the meantime, I ask whether the college’s emphasis on existential threat and self-reliance creeps too close to paralysing climate alarmism? “It’s alarming because of the situation we’re in,” Rawlence replied. “We haven’t had a UK government for 12-13 years that has actually taken this seriously.”

The Treeline
Ben Rawlence
Vintage Publishing, 352pp, £10.99

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