Should schools respond to the climate crisis, and if so, how?
by Lauren Sharkey
In 2019, Oxford Dictionaries declared ‘climate emergency’ the word of the year. And it’s no wonder. The #FridaysForFuture movement saw millions band together to strike against government inaction, leading to local jurisdictions across the globe declaring their own climate emergencies. In fact, almost all the councils in Britain have done so.
Schools, too, have taken action. But only a handful of UK schools have declared climate emergencies. Plus, a debate still rages among school staff over allowing students to strike. So should all be in favour of responding strongly to the climate crisis, or should educational institutions carry on as normal?
The first country to force schools to teach about climate change was Italy. In December 2019, its education minister said sustainability and the climate would be “the centre of the education model”, requiring state schools to implement relevant lessons for 33 hours a year.
The state of the current curriculum
Climate change is a mandatory part of the UK curriculum. As Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said in a statement: it forms “part of the programmes of study in Key Stage 3 and 4 science and geography. Many schools will also discuss the issue in other forums, such as through assemblies and class projects.”
Despite this requirement, it’s difficult to form a clear picture of students’ climate knowledge. (Some schools may focus on the topic more than others.) What is clear, however, is some students’ frustration. Almost a year ago, four 15-year-old pupils from Oxford petitioned the education secretary to make climate change a core part of the national curriculum. “We’ve barely learned about the climate crisis at school,” they wrote. 92,000 people have supported their rallying cries.
A school’s responsibility is first and foremost to its pupils: preparing them for the outside world and equipping them with the tools to tackle any situation. The education system is not there to create panic, it’s true. But the science doesn’t lie. Climate change is real and future generations will bear the brunt. But they also have the power to make a difference.
Shouldering the responsibility
Surely, the question isn’t: Should schools respond? It’s more a question of how. Firstly, take responsibility. The government seems unlikely to implement change, but there are 30,000 schools across the UK that can recognise their power and act. Acting, however, needn’t involve long periods of discussion. If the climate emergency is to be treated as such, it requires urgent attention and adjustments.
Changes to the curriculum are an obvious first step. “There is a strong argument for climate change to feature more prominently in the curriculum, not only in terms of studying its environmental impact, but also focusing on renewable energy and green technology,” Barton says. (Academies and independent schools have more free rein in this area. Schools that follow the national curriculum can push for reform via local authorities and teacher organisations.)
Schools should “be embedding Education for Sustainable Development into their curriculum —not as a standalone subject, but into each subject,” adds Rosie Saban, PR and policy officer for EAUC (the Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education). “It has relevance to everything, and the only way to make progress towards emissions reduction is if there is far better education on the topic.”
Barton advocates a “comprehensive review” of the current curriculum “to ensure it is fit for the future.” But, as he explains, “this sort of adjustment could not be done in isolation.” Three-quarters of teachers felt they hadn’t been properly trained on the climate crisis, found a recent Oxfam-commissioned poll. And unconfident teachers are likely to lead to unsuccessful education.
An online accreditation scheme, like EduCCate Global, can help teachers better understand the issues and learn how to teach them effectively. When it comes to lesson plan inspiration, organisations such as World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have numerous resources for pupils of all ages.
As well as making staff feel comfortable with a climate-focused curriculum, it is important for them to have an individual or group to turn to for support. Schools can consider using one of their Teaching and Learning Responsibility (TLR) positions to appoint a climate change coordinator. (The United Nations is set to provide extra funding for this role, according to a National Education Union guide.)
Alternatively, a climate committee could be set up to discuss issues and formulate policies. This may involve not just school staff, but parents, students, members from the local community and other schools or colleges. Schools that are part of a multi-academy trust luckily already have this support network.
Letting students lead
Students also need to feel engaged and empowered. Lively debates and discussions can help, but allowing pupils to lead can be even more effective. Let them form an eco council, organise a march, or even declare a school climate emergency. (Here’s a how-to for the latter option.) Again, organisations exist to help young people create planetary change; Eco Schools, Bright Green Future and the Foundation for Environmental Education are just three.
Involving students in this area is yet another way of preparing them for the future. Encourage their participation in discussions surrounding energy usage, waste reduction and the design of new buildings, and utilise programmes such as Less CO2 to pave the way to a more sustainableeducational environment.
All of the above may sound like a great degree of work. In reality, the climate crisis is a chance to avoid stagnation; to give both teachers and students a greater sense of purpose and a combined goal. Set the foundations and the rewards are bound to follow.