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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the pace and scale of current action to limit global warming is inadequate – but that urgent climate action can secure a liveable future for all (IPCC, 2023). Climate protest movements have emerged out of frustration with government inaction on climate change and the knowledge that acting now has the greatest potential to prevent climate breakdowns. Education – formal and non-formal, across the life course – has a key role to play in preparing societies to decide which paths to take, and for enabling the conditions for full participation in these decisions, which raises questions about the relationships between education, action and activism.

Despite research indicating that teachers and students support an action-based curriculum on climate change (Howard-Jones et al., 2020; Dunlop et al., 2022; UNESCO, 2022), environmental and climate change education occupies the margins in England (Greer, et al., 2023) with a focus on learning about the environment, rather than addressing environmental justice, advocacy or action (Glackin & King, 2020). In contrast, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for action for climate empowerment (ACE), to empower all members of society to engage in climate action through education, training and public participation. This requires an understanding of educational settings as political spaces in the sense of Hay (2007, p. 77), as places where there is ‘the capacity for agency and deliberation in situations of genuine collective or social choice’. Yet politics occupies an uncomfortable place in schools in England, with guidance on political impartiality in schools (DfE, 2022) contributing to a confusing and potentially troubling atmosphere around environment issues, politics and education. Responding to climate change requires ‘rapid and far-reaching transitions across all sectors and systems’ (IPCC, 2023), yet government guidance states that the principles which underpin society ‘should be reinforced by schools’, setting limits on what is deemed acceptable to discuss in a classroom context.

‘The CIVICUS Monitor has recently downgraded civic space in the UK and described it as “obstructed” (rather than “narrow” or “open”) as human rights, freedom of association and peaceful assembly and protest are under threat.’

This intersection between politics, education and environmental action has come to the fore in recent months. There has been a reported decline in civic space across the globe. Specifically, the CIVICUS Monitor (2023) has recently downgraded civic space in the UK and described it as ‘obstructed’ (rather than ‘narrow’ or ‘open’) as human rights, freedom of association and peaceful assembly and protest are under threat. For example, environmental protests face increased restrictions through rulings, which prevent climate activists from giving reasons for their protest during criminal trials. The recently passed Public Order Act includes measures to curb environmental protests in the UK with the imposition of conditions on peaceful protests and introduction of new police powers. The United Nations has described the Act as ‘deeply troubling legislation that is incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations’ (UN, 2023).

This context has implications for how educators and their students can engage in education through which students question their lifestyles and the systems and structures that maintain and promote high-consumption and high-emitting ways of living and being. How can and should educators discuss what sort of actions are needed for a just transition away from fossil fuels? What are the distinctions between education, action and activism?

Join our hot topic workshop at BERA Conference 2023 – 11.00am–12.30pm on Thursday 14 September 2023 – to discuss education, action and activism in the context of our experiences of recent educational research projects.


CIVICUS. (2023). United Kingdom

Department for Education [DfE]. (2022). Political impartiality in schools.

Dunlop, L., Rushton, E. A., Atkinson, L., Ayre, J., Bullivant, A., Essex, J., … & Wood, L. (2022). Teacher and youth priorities for education for environmental sustainability: A co‐created manifesto. British Educational Research Journal, 48(5), 952–973.

Glackin, M., & King, H. (2020). Taking stock of environmental education policy in England–the what, the where and the why. Environmental Education Research, 26(3), 305–323.

Greer, K., King, H., & Glackin, M. (2023). The ‘web of conditions’ governing England’s climate change education policy landscape. Journal of Education Policy, 38(1), 69–92.

Hay, C. (2007). Why we hate politics. Polity.

Howard-Jones, P., Sands, D., Dillon, J., & Fenton-Jones, F. (2021). The views of teachers in England on an action-oriented climate change curriculum. Environmental Education Research, 27(11), 1660–1680. 

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]. (2023). Mitigation and adaptation options across systems. AR6 synthesis report headline statements.

United Nations [UN]. (2023, April 27). UN Human Rights Chief urges UK to reverse ‘deeply troubling’ Public Order Bill.

UNESCO. (2022). Youth demands for quality climate change education.