The Knowledge

What do schools need to embed sustainability?

New research contains the first parent polling on sustainability education and shows what support schools need most to meet expectations, writes Nicola Walshe

New research contains the first parent polling on sustainability education and shows what support schools need most to meet expectations, writes Nicola Walshe

13 Jun 2022, 5:00

Recent IPCC research confirms that climate change is the defining issue of our time. Responding to it is an ethical imperative across all sectors, including schools. The role of education in responding to the global climate crisis has been the focus of much attention since COP26, leading to the launch in April this year of the government’s strategy for sustainability and climate change for the education and children’s services systems.

Research commissioned by UCL’s new Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (CCCSE), published this week, includes the first parent polling on this issue, revealing that students are more likely to talk about climate change with their parents than most other issues. The poll also demonstrates high levels of parental confidence in schools’ ability to provide the best education in issues of climate change and sustainability – this is in contrast with teachers in focus groups, who recognised the importance of these issues but who did not necessarily feel confident and prepared to teach them.

This research echoes previous findings. A recent UK-wide manifesto found that teachers and young people see climate change and sustainability education as something every child and young person should learn about, from early years through to secondary school, and that all teachers should be equipped to teach. However, the current context for schools is challenging, with teachers citing a lack of confidence, time and access to high quality-professional development as key barriers to change in relation to climate change and sustainability education.

Closing the confidence gap

There are three key areas of focus to effectively respond to this need. First, providing support so schools can incorporate climate change and sustainability education across the formal curriculum is imperative. It’s vital to equip teachers of every phase and subject to respond to issues of climate change and sustainability in ways that meet the needs of their students and the disciplinary context of their school subject.

Issues of climate change and sustainability are relevant across all of a school’s activities – including sites, operations and extra-curricular activities – but developing teachers’ confidence and expertise through the formal curriculum is key.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, the very clear need for schools to respond (and the parental and student expectation that they will), supporting teachers to embed climate change and sustainability in imaginative ways now is crucial. There is no time to wait for promised curriculum reform, and expecting teachers to find additional space in their existing schemes of work is itself not a sustainable solution.

Ethical leadership

Second, it’s important to recognise the vital role school leaders have in enabling schools to embed sustainability across the work and life of a school community. For example, CCCSE will work with our colleagues at UCL’s Centre for Educational Leadership to find the best ways to support and shape the work of school leaders. Our work will promote and support practical, attainable ways to embed climate change and sustainability as part of the ethos of each school, by helping to share good practice and developing training and resources for school leaders.

Positive feedback loops

Third, listening and responding to the views and perspectives of young people, teachers and school leaders is crucial to successful and sustained implementation. This is a key focus for the CCCSE, and we will provide a variety of ways for different groups to contribute their perspective, and ensure that the voices of teachers and young people are represented through their participation on advisory boards and in specialist subject and phase groups.

The next phases of our work include a national-scale survey of teachers and school leaders and in-depth case studies of schools who are at different stages in their journey towards embedding climate change and sustainability education into their ethos and curriculum.

To find out more about our research, register for an online panel discussion on July 7, 2022 to explore priorities and principles for climate change and sustainability education, or visit the CCCSE’s website to get involved.

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