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The place of education in the government’s draft sustainability and climate change strategy

Lynda Dunlop, Senior Lecturer in Science Education, University of York Elizabeth Rushton, King's College, London

Recent research on climate change education in England indicates an absence of policy and pro-environmental ambition, and obstruction in relation to both environmental sustainability in general, and climate change specifically (Greer et al., 2021). At present, scant attention is paid to climate change and environmental sustainability in the national curriculum, Ofqual subject content, the education inspection framework, the initial teacher training core content framework and the early career framework. This contrasts with international commitments to, for example, target 13.3 of sustainable development goal 13 (‘build knowledge and capacity to meet climate change’ [sdg-tracker.org, no date]),and the conclusions of the meeting of environment and education ministers at COP26 (2021) which included commitments to the integration and mainstreaming of sustainability and climate change into policy – including policies relating to curriculum, teacher education, assessment and teacher education.

The government recently announced a draft strategy for climate change and sustainability in education and children’s services systems (DfE, 2021), with the press release headlined ‘Education Secretary puts climate change at the heart of education’ (DfE & Zahawi, 2021). The strategy features five ‘action areas’, which include plans to make the education estate and school operations more sustainable. In this blog post, we focus on action area 1 – climate education – and consider how it stands up to the demands published in the Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability produced during BERA’s 2020–2022 Research Commission (2021).

‘Mandating suppliers of the school estate to commit to net zero by 2050 appears to be the limit of governments’ self-ascribed responsibility, yet the education sector is made responsible for meeting national climate change and sustainability obligations, with limited funding.’

In April and May 2021 more than 200 teachers, teacher educators and young people came together to co-create a shared vision of education for environmental sustainability. While we focus here on responses from England, the manifesto-making process brought together people from the four jurisdictions of the UK. When asked what they understood environmental sustainability to be, participants talked not only about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations, but also about social and environmental repair. Environmental sustainability was discussed as a process rather than an end-point, and there was a sense of urgency about pursuing environmental sustainability. Themes were identified at the classroom, school, community and policy levels, according to who has the power to make the change needed. At the level of policy – which requires action from those in positions of authority – the manifesto calls for government to identify ways in which sustainability can feature in existing policies and accountability regimes, to create policies that focus on valuing collective equitable action and positive problem-solving, and for a co-ordinated review of secondary school curricula, meaningfully involving the contributions of teachers and students (BERA Research Commission, 2021).

The ‘climate education’ action area of the Department for Education’s draft strategy (DfE, 2021) falls short of these political demands, instead identifying what individual teachers and schools can do. Mandating suppliers of the school estate to commit to net zero by 2050 appears to be the limit of governments’ self-ascribed responsibility, yet the education sector is made responsible for meeting national climate change and sustainability obligations, with limited access to funding to enable this. The education sector can and does already do significant and sustained work in this area. However, persistent barriers – identified by teachers and young people in the manifesto-making process discussed above – remain, including the following.

  • The marginalisation of climate change and sustainability in the national curriculum, examination specifications and inspection frameworks.
  • Teacher confidence, and access to training and support.
  • Capacity to take on additional workload in an accountability context that does not value sustainability.
  • Limited funds for advancing sustainability initiatives in schools.

In the draft strategy, climate change and sustainability education is positioned predominantly within the science and geography curricula, and ‘more knowledge’ is presented as the solution (DfE, 2021). By contrast, and in keeping with recent systematic reviews in the field (Monroe et al., 2019; Rousell & Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, 2020), the Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability calls for knowledge for action, alongside the development of young people’s capabilities to question, think critically, be data- and research-literate, to be creative and innovative and enabled to communicate and build networks to take action. It also calls for students to have time to think and learn about climate change and sustainability across subject areas – and to do this collaboratively (BERA Research Commission, 2021).

In the action area dedicated to ‘climate education’ the DfE’s draft strategy (2021) repurposes and reframes existing policy, presenting action on sustainability and climate change as choices, and introduces few fundamental changes. Responsibility for climate education is placed in the hands of science teachers, without an enabling policy environment to provide the time and resources needed to reorient practices and priorities, and to take forward existing work in this area. As one participant in the manifesto-making process noted,

‘As long as schools are driven by results and league tables this builds unsustainable structures that pressurise teachers and take them away from focusing on developing their knowledge and understanding. We need that to change if we’re going to build a more sustainable education system.’

As such, the draft strategy is at risk of becoming a ‘placebo policy’ – one which appears to do something, but fails to address the fundamental problem – leaving teachers and young people no better equipped to deal with the climate crisis.

The draft strategy is currently open to the public for comment. Responses can be submitted here until 20 February 2022.


References

26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties [COP26] (2021, November 5). Co-chairs conclusions of education and environment ministers summit at COP26. https://ukcop26.org/co-chairs-conclusions-of-education-and-environment-ministers-summit-at-cop26/

BERA Research Commission 2020–2022 (2021). A manifesto for education for environmental sustainability. British Educational Research Association. https://www.bera.ac.uk/news/manifesto-for-education-for-environmental-sustainability-efes-published-by-bera-research-commission

Department for Education [DfE] (2021, November). Sustainability & climate change: A draft strategy for the education & children’s services systems. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1031454/SCC_DRAFT_Strategy.pdf

Department for Education [DfE], & Zahawi, N. (2021, November 5). Education secretary puts climate change at the heart of education [Press release]. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/education-secretary-puts-climate-change-at-the-heart-of-education–2

Greer, K., King, H., & Glackin, M. (2021). The ‘web of conditions’ governing England’s climate change education policy landscape. Journal of Education Policy. Advance online publication. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02680939.2021.1967454

Monroe, M. C., Plate, R. R., Oxarart, A., Bowers, A., & Chaves, W. A. (2019). Identifying effective climate change education strategies: A systematic review of the research. Environmental Education Research, 25(6), 791–812. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2017.1360842

Rousell, D., & Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, A. (2020). A systematic review of climate change education: Giving children and young people a ‘voice’ and a ‘hand’ in redressing climate change. Children’s Geographies, 18(2), 191–208. https://doi.org/10.1080/14733285.2019.1614532

sdg-tracker.org (no date). Sustainable Development Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. https://sdg-tracker.org/climate-change