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Blog post Part of series: Embedding sustainability education in practice

Building a curriculum for a sustainable future, democratically

Elena Lengthorn, University of Worcester Megan Asbury, University of Worcester

Our planet is currently undergoing a climate crisis, exacerbated by pollution, exploitation and anthropogenic activity (WWT, 2019). Education is a fundamental tool in helping to reduce further harm and mitigate pre-existing impacts on biodiversity loss, extreme weather events, and detrimental impacts on mental and physical health (Lundholm & Sternang, 2011). Bendell (2020) urges us to educate the youth for change in the future. Education can initiate actions among a large proportion of the population, but it needs to be done in a democratic way to engage learners (Deisenrieder, Kubisch, Keller, & Stötter, 2020). We believe that education can inspire people, by planting seeds of change in environmental values and behaviour. However, we are also aware that ‘70% of UK teachers have not received adequate training to educate students on climate change’ (SOS-UK, 2021).

The UK was the first national government to make a declaration of climate emergency in May 2019 (Turney, 2019), after many other towns and cities had already done so and not long before our own institution, the University of Worcester, made its declaration. Nevertheless, little, if anything, has formally changed in the education systems of the four nations of the UK, either in terms of the practical preparation for adaptation and mitigation that is needed in facing the fallout from climate crisis, or in the context of the curriculum(s) that we are delivering.

‘Little, if anything, has formally changed in the education systems of the four nations of the UK, either in terms of the practical preparation for adaptation and mitigation that is needed in facing the fallout from climate crisis, or in the context of the curriculum(s) that we are delivering.’

Willis (2020) reminds us that state-level responses to climate change are dependent on social and political conceptions; that responses to climate change are, inherently, political. While Stern (2018) makes the case that we will be unsuccessful at limiting warming without strong political will. Furthermore, Willis (2020, p. 3) argues that it is possible and essential that we find democratic solutions, and invites the democratic involvement of all citizens and voters in our responses to decision-making at this time of climate breakdown.

The UK government utilised a democratic approach to climate change discussion in early 2020 through the UK Climate Assembly, which considered the national target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. This led to the development of 25 underpinning principles for the UK path to net zero (Climate Assembly UK, 2020), which were further voted on to create a list of prioritised concepts. ‘Informing and educating everyone (the public, industry, individuals and government)’ emerged as the number one principle (Climate Assembly UK, 2020, p. 58).

The authors are undertaking a Green Impact project, mapped out chronologically in figure 1, which aims to engage education stakeholders from Worcester in a democratic assembly process. This will include expert input on the localised climate impacts, followed by debate and discussion, to determine the content of a new secondary teacher education curriculum being developed for ‘education in climate emergency’. Participating stakeholders will include school leaders, in-service and pre-service teachers, governors, parents, youth leaders and local environmental groups.

Figure 1: Green Impact educators’ assembly project, timelineA timeline for the Green Impact educators' assembly project, from the planning phase ending on 21 April 2021 to the final, evaluation phase which, in July 2022, will follow the curriculum delivery phase.In his recent speech to the UN Security Council, Sir David Attenborough (2021) reminded us that ‘unparalleled levels of global co-operation’ are required to face the challenge of climate emergency. A democratic approach to curriculum development, in the form of an educators’ assembly, a process that can be replicated in communities across the UK and around the world, has the potential to engage a broad audience and, perhaps, plant the seeds of change.


Attenborough, D. (2021, February 21). Sir David Attenborough on climate and security: Security Council open VTC [Video].

Bendell, J. (2020). Deep adaptation: A map for navigating tragedy, IFLAS occasional papers volume 2. University of Cumbria.

Climate Assembly UK. (2020). The path to new zero.

Deisenrieder, V., Kubisch, S., Keller, L., & Stötter, J. (2020). Bridging the action gap by democratizing climate: The case of k.i.d.Z.21 in the context of Fridays for Future, Sustainability, 12(5), 1–19.

Lundholm, C., & Sternang, L. (2011). Climate change and morality: Students’ perspectives on the individual and society, International Journal of Science Education, 33(8), 1131–1148.

Stern, N. (2018, October 8). We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero or face more floods. Guardian.

Students Organising for Sustainability UK [SOS-UK]. (2021, March 16). Nearly three quarters of teachers lack training on climate change.

Turney, C. (2019, May 2). UK becomes first country to declare a ‘climate emergency’. The Conversation.

Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust [WWT]. (2019, May 7). The facts about biodiversity loss: 6 key insights from the 2019 IPBES report.

Willis R. (2020). Too hot to handle? The democratic challenge of climate change. Bristol University Press.