Sustainability: Piecemeal progress will open a ‘green gap’

Some progress has been made towards key goals in the DfE’s sustainability strategy, say Keya Lamba and Shweta Bahri, but now it's time to supercharge implementation

Some progress has been made towards key goals in the DfE’s sustainability strategy, say Keya Lamba and Shweta Bahri, but now it's time to supercharge implementation

31 Jan 2023, 5:00

Climate education plays a key role in empowering children and tackling climate anxiety, reducing future carbon emissions and ensuring climate justice. The Department for Education’s (DfE) sustainability and climate change strategy recognises this and sets the stage for the UK to be one of the few countries in the world to have formally adopted a comprehensive climate and sustainability education plan. Nearly a year on from publication, however, it’s high time for a clear implementation roadmap and financial and technical support for schools to make real progress.

It’s important to note that the dedicated unit has already achieved some progress in its strategic goals. A key achievement has been the creation of a consortium led by the Natural History Museum. This partnership is set to establish a new National Education Nature Park and climate action awards scheme.

Compared with other countries, the DfE’s strategy takes a holistic approach across age groups. It has a vision for skilling for future green jobs and for a carbon-neutral school infrastructure. It even considers elements teacher training, which is often overlooked.

But vision without a clear strategy and robust financial and technical support for implementation amounts to little but warm words. Schools need the government’s help to appoint sustainability leads, to train teachers, to create climate action plans and to prepare curriculum material. However, beyond a model science curriculum for primary schools due this year, the strategy is vague on timelines and on the type of support that will be available for teachers and school leaders.

Even the promised model primary curriculum is insufficient. Climate education specialists broadly fall into two camps: those who argue that the issue of climate change should be threaded through all subjects, and those who say it should be taught as a stand-alone. The two aren’t exclusive, and in any case the subject should be made relevant to all age groups.

And it can’t just be about curriculum either. Work is also needed to develop pedagogical approaches to the subject. Research shows that simply teaching the science of climate change doesn’t inspire the kind of climate action we need. Instead, a solutions-based approach is key to empowering students in their local communities.

Vision without a clear strategy amounts to little

Meanwhile, there are various threads of work happening concurrently which must be brought together. For example, it’s unclear exactly how the new consortium mentioned above fits into the broader strategy.

Similarly, the DfE’s plan must be considered alongside existing education policies, notably accountability. One potential driver for rapid and sustained progress, for example, could be to incorporate parameters from the strategy into Ofsted’s inspection framework.

But schools can’t be held accountable for something they have not be trained to deliver or supported to achieve. They will need direction on how to make time in their already packed timetables for climate education, and for training teachers to deliver it. The Public Sector Decarbonisation scheme is delivering change in many schools, but those taking advantage of it are those already most likely to have the resources to make funding applications and oversee capital projects. What about the rest?

One way to ensure the issue doesn’t get lost amid competing priorities could be to make climate education a legal requirement for all schools. That would have the advantage of holding the government equally accountable for action on climate education and demonstrate genuine commitment to the DfE’s strategy.

There is already a growing movement of schools and teachers across the UK who are incorporating climate change and sustainability education into their timetables. School Sustainability Networks (SSNs) are bringing together students and teachers on this topic and provide access to classroom resources and CPD, and many international organisations provide free resources too.

All of which means schools do not have to wait on the government to drive climate and sustainability education forward. But piecemeal progress like this isn’t enough. It will only allow a ‘green gap’ to appear where other disadvantage gaps are already apparent.

Climate change is a global problem that requires national solutions. The DfE’s strategy outlines a promising roadmap that could make the UK a model for the rest of the world, but a nearly a year on from its publication, we need momentum to make climate and sustainability education a reality for all.

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