Sustainability, The Knowledge

What do teachers think of teaching climate and sustainability?

A new survey reveals an enthusiastic profession but also substantial obstacles on the road to delivering the DfE’s sustainability vision, explains Christine Özden

A new survey reveals an enthusiastic profession but also substantial obstacles on the road to delivering the DfE’s sustainability vision, explains Christine Özden

13 Nov 2023, 5:00

OCR and its parent organisation, Cambridge University Press & Assessment take every opportunity to embed knowledge of the natural world in the curriculum and give young people the skills and understanding they need to tackle one of the world’s biggest challenge – climate change.

But we wanted to find out more about how prepared schools and teachers feel about providing lessons on sustainability. In particular, we were interested in what needs to change in order to make teaching as effective as possible and to create a more inclusive, transformative and green education system with student wellbeing at its heart.

So, in partnership with Reboot the Future, we surveyed 7,000 teachers across the country to find out, and what we learned is that there are some clear signs of optimism among the profession.

By 2025, all 24,442 education settings in England are expected to have nominated a sustainability lead, which represents 5 per cent of the teacher pool. Pleasingly, 15 per cent of teachers reported that they were either already in the role or would happily put themselves forward for it. Clearly there is willingness among school staff to drive the environmental agenda forward.

There was similar enthusiasm inside the classroom. More than two-thirds of teachers are engaging their pupils in topics related to sustainability. This was more common in primary schools than secondaries, but in both sectors teachers were more likely than not to have taught lessons on the environment in the past year.

However, there are discrepancies across the curriculum. Ninety-eight per cent of humanities teachers surveyed had taught lessons on sustainability in the past 12 months, whereas maths teachers were least likely to have done so.

Nevertheless, there was clear enthusiasm for incorporating environmental issues across the school, both in lessons across the curriculum and through initiatives outside the classroom. Research shows that the latter can improve motivation and well-being, and we know that pupils are keen to learn more about nature and the world around them.  

The survey revealed enthusiasm – but some real concerns

We believe young people must be central to climate education strategies. That’s why OCR are engaging with students through organisations like Teach The Future and Mock COP, as well as directly with students in schools and through social media.

Four in five teachers surveyed told us that the climate and ecological emergency is the biggest challenge young people face, but the survey also revealed some real concerns.

Fifty-six per cent of teachers surveyed could not see a way in which the UK becomes a “world leader in sustainable education by 2030”, as set out in the DfE’s climate change strategy, regardless of potential reform. Only 1 per cent believe the department’s vision is achievable if we carry on as we are. However, younger teachers are more positive about reaching this landmark than teachers in their fifties and older.

Overall, 69 per cent of respondents agreed that the curriculum should be altered to make sustainability more prominent. We’re reviewing our offer to identify where we can do this across a range of subjects.

But if we expect staff to teach about environmental issues, we must make sure they have the tools to do so properly. Two-thirds of our respondents said they don’t get enough training on teaching sustainability-related topics. Any new qualifications, including our own GCSE in natural history and Cambridge National in Sustainability, will therefore depend for their success on teachers having the right professional development and resources to teach with confidence. 

Next month, I will be attending the COP28 summit to talk about teaching climate literacy in India and other parts of the world. I am fortunate to be able to build bridges with climate educators and to share examples of good practice.

Many individual teachers in the UK are doing an amazing job to engage their students on sustainability, but this report shows that schools need more support, and potentially even substantial changes to the curriculum, if they are to help pupils properly prepare for a changing climate.

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