What do schools really need to deliver climate change education now?

Teachers don’t need a curriculum review or a new GCSE to deliver climate change education, writes Sylvia Knight. They need guidance and resources

Teachers don’t need a curriculum review or a new GCSE to deliver climate change education, writes Sylvia Knight. They need guidance and resources

19 Jun 2023, 12:30

The DfE Sustainability and Climate Change strategy set the ambitious target of supporting all education settings to put in place climate action plans by 2025 covering everything from decarbonisation to improving air quality and minimising heat and flood risk, as well as increasing the climate literacy of students, leaders, support staff, care takers, cooks and teachers.

While we are now beginning to see the support mechanisms being put in place to allow schools to develop these plans, the challenges are huge, particularly given the diverse nature of settings from tiny early years providers to huge MATs, and the lack of relevant expertise in many settings.

The Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS) believes that every student should leave school with the basic climate literacy that would enable them to engage with the messages put forward by the media or politicians, or to make informed decisions about their own opportunities and responsibilities.

This is also to equip them with the knowledge and skills required for the green jobs of the future and is very much in line with the DfE strategy which specifically states that all young people should be prepared for a world impacted by climate change through learning and practical experience.

There is high awareness and concern amongst young people about climate change and broader environmental issues as well as repeated calls from them, and others, for schools to teach more.

However, in research we conducted in 2022 the majority of students did recognise that they had been taught about climate change in the previous year. Despite this, their ability to correctly answer basic questions was very poor.

So, the questions become ‘where is climate change currently being taught’, and ‘where are there opportunities for teachers to demonstrate to students that what they are learning is relevant to their understanding of climate change as well as their ability to communicate that understanding and anxieties and ‘green’ their lives and careers’?

There are many opportunities for climate change education within the current specifications

Our latest research looks at all the GCSE specifications and shows that there are many, many opportunities for climate change education within the current specifications. In some subjects, teachers will already be talking about climate change and sustainability. In others, the relevance of the material that is already being taught will only be obvious to teachers that already have some expertise.

Small and rapid changes could lead to students leaving school with a far better appreciation of the relevance of what they have learned to their understanding of climate change and its relevance to their future lives and careers.

Crucially, this can be done without increasing teacher workload or the volume of content teacher and students have to cover. The key to realising these opportunities is to demonstrate to the exam boards, teachers and students where the links are and to provide classroom ready resources, sample exam questions and other support materials for teachers.

At the moment, the lion’s share of the teaching about climate change takes place in geography and science lessons. However, not all students take geography at GCSE, and coverage in science is limited and will depend on the path students take through science GCSE. In addition, there are aspects of climate change that are not covered by these subjects, and are more relevant, for example, to design and technology, art or English. 

We strongly believe that, by working with the current curriculum and exam specifications, significant improvements to climate education can be made in a short timeframe, without the need for curriculum reform.

As a result of this review, the RMetS is calling on the DfE, subject associations, exam boards and all those involved in curriculum development and implementation to support teachers to make rapid use of some of these findings, through the development of teacher training and other support materials, high quality sample schemes of work, data sets and sample exam questions.

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