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Weaving a ‘green thread’ of climate change education: Primary and secondary school teachers’ current practice

Elizabeth Rushton, Head of Education Division at University of Stirling Lynda Dunlop, Senior Lecturer in Science Education at University of York Lucy Atkinson, Research Fellow at University of York

In April 2022, the Department for Education (DfE) launched a sustainability and climate change strategy for the education and children’s services systems in England which includes a focus on the role of school sustainability ‘leads’ (DfE, 2022). This is consistent with calls for sustainability coordinators to lead each school to a greener approach, made by teachers, teacher educators and young people in BERA’s Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability, published in November 2021 (BERA, 2021; Dunlop et al., 2022).

Given this focus on leadership, we explored what leading climate change education looks like in practice for primary and secondary schools and the barriers and enablers they encounter. Participants contributed to one of two online workshops held in November 2022. A total of 24 participants contributed, evenly distributed across primary and secondary settings. Here, we share our initial findings.

Weaving a ‘green thread’ of climate change education across school curricular and communities – ideas and expertise from primary-school practice

Primary-based educator practitioners articulated a vision for climate change education which was a ‘green thread’, integrated across the curriculum rather than a topic or subject that was ‘seasonal’ or ‘extra’. Such a ‘green thread’ could mean teachers have the agency to implement climate change education that was contextualised, for example incorporating locally relevant examples and case studies and including authentic stories in a variety of media. This is consistent with previous research which found teachers in England favour a cross-curricular approach to climate change education (Howard-Jones et al., 2021).

The value of collaboration within and beyond school communities was recognised as a vital way to create a positive culture for change in relation to climate change education. Teachers highlighted children’s energy, ideas and desire for change as something which inspired them in their own practice and shared the value of developing and nurturing supportive networks within and beyond school communities. Extra-curricular clubs were noted as key spaces of current good practice – for example eco-groups, where students can identify climate positive action across school sites and operations and influence school leaders and governors to implement changes. Other examples include working with partners, such as local councils, involving parents in climate action-focused projects and initiatives and developing collaborations with schools in other countries to build an understanding of the interconnected nature of climate change and sustainability issues. Partnerships and school and/or community projects have previously been highlighted by Monroe et al. (2017) as effective strategies for climate change education.

‘The value of collaboration within and beyond school communities was recognised as a vital way to create a positive culture for change in relation to climate change education.’

Climate change education for life-long flourishing – ideas and expertise from secondary-school practice

Secondary-based educators set out different roles and contributions for school leaders and teachers in relation to climate change education. School leaders were understood to have an important role in setting a school-wide direction for climate change education with staff time and resources allocated across all subjects and championing and making climate action visible, for example by declaring a climate emergency. Teachers saw their role as making clear the relationship between climate and environmental crises and social justice and framing climate change in terms of the range of political, economic and social change needed. Teachers also highlighted the ways in which they support students to make positive changes – for example, through activities such as eco-clubs and school climate committees. Teachers recognised the need for ‘positive persistence’, working together with students, teaching assistants and other school staff to create whole-school climate action plans, which they held school leaders accountable for.

In common with the primary school context, secondary teachers saw climate change education as empowering students through engagement with their local context, drawing on authentic, meaningful and contemporary case studies and issues throughout. Opportunities to explore and enact climate action across school sites and operations were also valued as key educational approaches, as well as connections with wider partnerships and networks to give students a voice beyond their school context. This articulation of the different school and community spaces for climate change education is consistent with the areas for action identified by teachers, teacher educators and youth in the BERA Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability (BERA, 2021).

Next steps

Primary and secondary educators reported different barriers to climate leadership in terms of disciplinarity within subjects, priorities of the young people they work with and the place of political and economic complexities. However, across both the contributions from primary and secondary contexts, there was a shared understanding that climate change education needed to be integrated across the work and life of a school, providing all members of the community opportunities to learn and live in more climate-conscious ways that develop connections with the wider world.

Ongoing work includes sharing the next phase of work from the BERA Manifesto project, ‘Changing the climate of climate education’, illustrated by Maisy Summer, drawing on expertise from educators in primary, secondary and higher education settings in England.

You can find out more about BERA’s Education for Environmental Sustainability special interest group here, including upcoming events.


Image credit: Maisy Summer.

Funding for this work included support from University of York ESRC IAA.


British Educational Research Association (BERA). (2021). Manifesto for education for environmental sustainability.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2022). Sustainability and climate change: A strategy for the education and children’s services systems.

Dunlop, L., Rushton, E. A. C., Atkinson, L., Ayre, J., Bullivant, A., Essex, J., Price, L., Smith, A., Summer, M., Stubbs, J., Turkenburg-van Diepen, M., & Wood, L. (2022) Teacher and youth priorities for education for environmental sustainability: A co-created manifesto. British Educational Research Journal, 48(5), 952–973.

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.

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.