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Blog post Part of special issue: What are we educating for?

Educating for sustainable futures in secondary education

Nicola Walshe, Professor of Education at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society

What are we educating for in secondary education? In a world where if we want to know something we can just ‘google it’, and artificial intelligence can generate essays, presentations or reports in seconds, what is the point of secondary education?

The key purpose of education is to help children and young people understand and engage with the world around them. We are living at a time of unequivocal human-caused climate change; with rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere. We are experiencing widespread adverse impacts to nature and people, with vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least being disproportionately affected. In this context, all education should enable people to learn for the environment, and to address inequalities which are fundamentally shaped by the environmental crises that we are facing. Secondary education should provide agency and hope for a better future.

In shaping what we are educating for in secondary education, there needs to be a symbiotic and reciprocal partnership between policymakers, practitioners and researchers. Working to shape and support secondary education is more complex than ever, and requires multi-professional, and multi-departmental, working. For example, without addressing the crisis in children and young people’s mental health we will never be in a position to ‘close the gap’ or ‘level up’, and children and young people will never be able to reach their potential. In our AHRC-funded Branching Out project, through multi-professional working across education, health and social care, we found that arts-in-nature practice had a positive impact on children’s confidence, their relationships with each other and the natural environment, their creativity, and their wellbeing.

‘Without addressing the crisis in children and young people’s mental health we will never be in a position to “close the gap” or “level up”, and children and young people will never be able to reach their potential.’

However, there is also a need to provide spaces for young people’s voices to shape what we are educating for in secondary education. Children and young people across the globe are advocating for high-quality climate change and sustainability education which effectively prepares them to live with the complexities and uncertainties of human-induced climate change (for example, see Teach the Future; Fisher, 2019). At the UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (CCCSE), through focus groups with 85 young people from secondary schools across England, we found that while some young people understood the causes and impacts of climate change, by far the most common emotions expressed in relation to climate change were negative. In particular, a fear of the future and a hopelessness in the face of humankind’s seeming inability to act (Rushton et al., 2023).

These negative emotions are entirely consistent with an approach to climate change education which provides young people with knowledge about the impacts of climate change, without the implementation of emotionally responsive pedagogies. Expressions of fear could be seen as a logical response to the sense that the climate change education is not preparing them sufficiently for the challenges of present and future climate and ecological crises.

As such, policymakers, practitioners and researchers need to listen and respond to the voices of young people, working together to provide the imperative and support for schools to implement teacher professional development that enables all young people to access effective and transformative climate change education. Such professional development should empower teachers to draw on their age-phase and subject expertise, supporting them to engage with climate change as a challenge which has political, economic, social and ethical complexities, as well as scientific realities (Greer et al., 2023).

While young people understand the impact of failing to urgently respond to the climate emergency, and the fear this creates in them for their futures, what is perhaps remarkable is that they also articulate that an alternative vision is possible. Some continue to have hope that this can be achieved if they, and those who hold positions of authority – whether it be policymakers, practitioners or researchers – act. This very much underpins ‘Teaching for Sustainable Futures’, CCCSE’s professional development programme designed to empower schools and teachers to respond to our planetary crisis in powerful and hopeful ways.

A 13-year-old school student last year told us: ‘It can be a bit depressing … we need more positive stuff, we need to have hope.’​

Secondary education has the potential to provide agency and hope for a better future for all our children and young people.


Fisher, D. R. (2019). The broader importance of #FridaysForFuture. Nature Climate Change, 9, 430–431. 

Greer, K., Sheldrake, R., Rushton, E., Kitson, A., Hargreaves, E., & Walshe, N. (2023). Teaching climate change and sustainability: A survey of teachers in England. University College London.  

Rushton, E. A. C., Sharp, S., Kitson, A., & Walshe, N. (2023). Reflecting on climate change education priorities in secondary schools in England: Moving beyond learning about climate change to the emotions of living with climate change. Sustainability, 15(8), 6497.