Climate change

How can we meet the pledge to put climate ‘at the heart of education’?

If the government is serious about education for sustainability, it will need to be equally serious about delivering sustainability for education, writes Nicola Walshe

If the government is serious about education for sustainability, it will need to be equally serious about delivering sustainability for education, writes Nicola Walshe

22 Nov 2021, 5:00

Despite calls for improving climate change education at the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015, there has been a noticeable absence of progress in this area. Five years on, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi announced his intention at this year’s event to put climate change “at the heart of education”, with a view to empowering children and young people to “take action on the environment”.

It goes without saying that most teachers have understood the importance of climate change education for some time. A 2019 UKSCN/Oxfam survey found 69 per cent of UK teachers think there should be more teaching about climate change. However, research by Teach the Future undertaken this year reveals that 70 per cent of teachers feel they haven’t received adequate training to teach about climate change themselves.

The problem for government is therefore primarily the fact that a majority of teachers feel under-prepared for this vital task. And without them, an education system that prepares and empowers children and young people to help prevent further climate change and deal with its consequences remains unlikely, regardless of Westminster Hall debates on whether sustainability and climate change should be included more prominently in the national curriculum.

But while these debates and policy conversations take place, there are pockets of inspirational practice to be found across the country. It’s happening at all levels – from early years to sixth form – and involves both curricular innovation and rich, extra-curricular opportunity. And the impacts go far beyond a greater awareness of the environment and how to protect it. In fact, policymakers may find supporting greater education for sustainability is not additional to, but perfectly complementary with, the twin drives to ‘catch up’ and ‘level up’.

There are pockets of inspirational practice to be found across the country

I lead the Eco-Capabilities project at the UCL Institute of Education. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, we consider how children’s wellbeing can be supported through working with artists in nature and outdoor places. More specifically, the research focuses on the nature-based interventions of our project partner, Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination (CCI) and their impact in addressing children’s disenfranchisement and supporting their wellbeing.

Through Eco-Capabilities, more than 100 key stage 2 primary school students have been working alongside their teachers, artists and researchers, for eight days of creative adventuring in nature (or ‘artscaping). These creative and participatory workshops took place once a week in two schools in areas of relatively high socio-economic deprivation in eastern England – areas just like those evidence suggests are significantly less likely to offer children and young people access to nature and the arts.

Our findings demonstrate significant changes among the children who participate. These include increased resilience in and out of the classroom, increased capacity for risk-taking, greater collaboration and empathy between children and strengthened relationships between children and teachers, particularly for those who struggle in classroom environments.

What’s more, after spending time outdoors children can better articulate emotions that are not easily verbalised, supporting self-regulation. And as they develop a greater sense of belonging in and being part of nature, we see enhanced recognition and appreciation of biodiversity and of nature as a space for calm and inspiration. Not to mention a rapidly growing understanding of the importance of environmental sustainability!

Nadhim Zahawi was on to something when his COP26 speech focused on encouraging children and young people “to get involved in the natural world by increasing biodiversity in the grounds of their nursery, school or college”. CCI’s effective projects work specifically on the premise of inviting children to explore familiar outdoor spaces and to re-engage with and reimagine the possibilities these spaces afford.

But the project also shows the limitation in the aspiration to “deliver world-leading climate change education through a model science curriculum”. Art and movement are central to our project’s impact. And even were policymakers to recommend – or better, stipulate – both, developing this practice in schools requires what CCI call ‘slowliness’, a generosity with time and space.

Given the well-known pressures on teachers’ time, any schools climate policy will need to include making workload more sustainable too.

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