The Climate Change Debate

Should schools respond to the climate emergency, and how?

The curriculum is for knowledge. Issues don’t drive the curriculum.

As students worldwide once again take to the streets on a school day to demand action to tackle climate change, we bring together two people with very different views on whether and how schools should engage with the issue.


Anita Kerwin-Nye is the director of the Youth Hostel Association and believes schools have a moral duty to engage.

Alex Standish is a senior lecturer in geography education at UCL Institute of Education who believes the UN’s climate change agenda has no place in classrooms.

Can they find common ground?


Is there a climate crisis?

Alex Standish

Obviously, there’s a climate problem, a big climate problem. I don’t totally reject the idea there is a crisis, but a lot of the discourse around it has been alarmist and I don’t like that. That’s why I started writing about scaring children. ‘Catastrophe’ and ‘apocalypse’ – environmentalists use that to promote fear, and that’s where the problem is if that comes into the classroom.

Anita Kerwin-Nye

I agree about the emotive language, even though I’ve used the word, mainly tongue in cheek, when I was talking about an ‘Apocalypse Baccalaureate’. But I think we need to accept that there are multiple environmental emergencies and multiple threats to humanity. The language we use and our responses are what matter most.


I wouldn’t agree that we’re in danger of being wiped out. I guess I see more capacity. I believe in human ingenuity. Even though politics might be a struggle, I think we have capacity to adapt. We have already.


I guess my point is that it’s not equitable. Those who will most likely be able to adapt or respond will be the wealthy. So there’s an ethical question as well.


Are young people right to be following Greta Thunberg and walking out of school?

My point is that it’s not equitable


I’m all for students having a voice. It’s their future, and it’s good to see them be engaged. The question is how we have that dialogue. I do think there’s something in the adult-child relationship here, where it seems like the adults are trying to push the children forward to give their message moral authority.


Adults always use young people to take agendas forward. Whether that’s disabled children, or children of particular background, or gangs, children have always been politicised. So I’d say that’s generally a truism. It’s not right. But it is a truism


One problem I have with the idea that schools need to focus on climate change is that it is trying to solve the problem for children through schools, whereas actually, I think you need to separate these things. Education is one thing, and then solving problems in the adult world is another. The idea of putting the focus on children is possibly manipulative. It’s deflection from actually getting on with it.


It’s not an either/or. I think we have to fix it in the adult realm. But we also need to accept that if we don’t develop young people with technical skills and a rounded skill set, then we get a group of young people who don’t ever challenge anything, who don’t think differently. Those things are really important generally, not just for the environmental emergencies we’re talking about.


There’s a lot that I agree with you on, but I don’t think schools should be encouraging kids to take time off school to campaign. As extra-curricular, I’m all for debating societies and things like that. But I think the curriculum is for knowledge and the pursuit of truth. Issues don’t drive the curriculum.


How should headteachers respond to students going on strike?


As a headteacher, if I let a group of young people go out for a day on a school trip to a museum, or a student who may be excellent at rugby to take a day out for a tournament, most people would say that’s absolutely fine. But when it’s a political campaigning case, people have objections. Is the objection to the time out of school? Fine, but then let’s cut everything else as well. Or is it an objection to the fact that they are political and have agency? In which case it is a bigger debate to have.


The strike isn’t a strike, for one. Kids can’t go on strike because they don’t have contracts, so the term is a little disingenuous. I think we need to be clear about educational objectives. If you say you can go on a march for this political campaign, then you’ve got to allow them to go on a march for any political campaign.


If a teacher wants young people to know how political campaigning works, there is a body of knowledge that people study to post-doctorate level. It’s academic, and it would be a legitimate thing to say that part of our citizenship curriculum is to engage in a march to parliament in the same way that going to an art gallery might support an arts curriculum.


I agree that in citizenship you might want to know how campaigns work, but joining one is a different thing. Teachers shouldn’t be encouraging children to make political statements. They should bring political debates into the classroom.


Should teachers be trained to teach about climate change?

You might want to know how campaigns work, but joining one is a different thing


Yes, science teachers. And in fact, we do at UCL. It is an important topic. We need to make sure that the teachers are going to teach it well. I think that’s best done within subjects. Obviously, form teachers have a relationship with their forms and might have to have a conversation with kids about that. But if it’s not your subject area, you’re not going to be as well placed to have that conversation.


I think there’s a difference here between primary and secondary. In primary, they aren’t domain specialists on the whole. How do we support teachers, especially with the sciences, which primary teachers regularly reflect they’re under-confident in delivering?


So UN-accredited climate change teachers. Good idea? Bad idea?


Bad idea. I think that is a political agenda.


Actually, I agree with that. I think they’re great to have as part of debate and discussion. But to pretend there isn’t a political agenda would be naive.


The next climate strike is happening today. Do you let the children go?


That’s a tricky one. If my 16-year-old was out of school and I didn’t know she was, the headteacher would be in trouble. So, professional judgement, keep the child safe, ages and stages… If they’re going to do it, make sure they do it safely and in an informed way.


We want children to have experiences that prepare them for their roles in democracy, but I think that the school has got to protect curriculum time.


So the easiest thing is to schedule the strikes on Saturdays?


It’s not a strike then. It’s a campaign march.


It never was a strike.


Areas we can agree on:

Children and young people should be part of the conversation on climate change, and seeing them politically engaged is a positive thing.

But, we should be very careful about alarmist language around children and young people, and ensure that our conversations are age-appropriate.

Teachers should consider the provenance of the resources they use carefully. Children need the knowledge and skills to make sense of challenges for themselves, including recognising bias.

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