Guest post: The climate-change gaps in the UK school curriculum

While the impacts of global warming are already being felt across the world, the decisions taken now on climate action will most affect today’s young people.

Yet many children rarely encounter discussion of climate change in the classroom or in their wider lives, except in often-distressing news stories or through what they see on social media.

This summer has been a case in point, when a succession of extremes has made headlines. Rapid attribution studies have shown that the deadly heat in the Pacific northwest in June would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change and that the severe flooding in western Europe in July was made more likely by climate change.

Learning to live with these consequences, and adapt to them, is one of the biggest challenges humanity has ever faced, and the way society changes will shape everyday life for future generations

But, despite climate action and adaptation being an immediate national priority, it is currently little mentioned in the UK national school curriculum.

This is why the University of Reading – working with partners including the Met Office, Office for Climate Education and Royal Meteorological Society – are holding a Climate Education Summit today to discuss an action plan for improving climate education in schools. 

Education demand

The wide-ranging implications of global warming mean that people will feel its impacts whether their interests at school are, say, in the lab or the arts, and regardless of their career path.

Yet, climate change is only included briefly in the national curriculum, as it currently stands. 

The word “climate” features twice in the science curriculum for Key Stage 4 (KS4) for 15- and 16-year-olds – instructing teachers to explain the “potential effects” of greenhouse gases, plus “evidence and uncertainties” for human-caused climate change. And once for KS3 (12-14 years), but not at all for KS2 (8-11 years) and KS1 (5-7 years).

In geography, there are three mentions in the KS3 curriculum, including the requirement to teach “the change in climate from Ice Age to the present” and “how human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environments, and the climate”.

The Department for Education (DfE) says other relevant teaching includes primary-age pupils learning about seasons, weather and habitats (KS1), as well as how environments can change and climate zones (KS2). Secondary-school pupils learn about aspects of the climate and ecosystems in both biology and chemistry (KS3), while A-level students are taught an understanding of climate change and how it can be tackled, the DfE says.

However, all of the above examples are restricted to the sciences and geography, barring one DfE suggestion that economics A-level lessons “could” include impacts of economics decisions and activity on the environment, if schools and colleges wish to.

A page from a textbook used in UK schools to teach pupils about global warming
A page from a textbook used in UK schools to teach pupils about “global warming” on the AQA “9-1 Biology Combined Science” GSCE course. Source: OUP Oxford.

There is scope for much wider inclusion across a breadth of subjects. For example, food technology pupils could learn about low-carbon foods and cooking techniques. English pupils could study methods of communicating risk. Business lessons could feature work on estimating and preparing for business risks associated with extreme weather.

Young people themselves are clear in their desire for this greater depth and breadth of climate-education across the curriculum. For example, climate education formed a key part of the declaration from the “mock” COP26 online conference held last year by youth delegates from around the world. It also features heavily in the youth-led “Teach the Future” campaign.

This is the key reason behind this week’s Climate Education Summit. The event will bring together leading climate scientists, teachers and education specialists and young people to identify the gaps in current climate education, and how these could be addressed through closer collaboration.

Equipping teachers

A generation armed with knowledge about the challenges it faces, and the potential solutions, is much more likely to engage with the climate challenge with greater confidence and vigour.

Today’s young people will also be tomorrow’s leaders and policymakers. Following the severe flooding in Germany this summer, authorities were accused of taking inadequate action in response to warnings from forecasters that serious flooding was coming. This may be evidence that society is currently not taking natural hazards seriously enough. Improved education could go some way to addressing this issue at the root.

Regardless of the quantity of climate education in the curriculum, the quality is another key issue. Surveys of teachers by climate the Teach the Future campaign group showed that nine out of 10 teachers agree that climate change should be compulsory in schools, yet only three out of 10 feel properly equipped to teach it.

The recent controversy over BBC Bitesize, which provides online study support for schoolchildren, is a high-profile example of how climate education can go wrong. The site faced a backlash after it was found that its climate change resources featured a lengthy list of “positive” consequences of climate change. It is no wonder that so many teachers feel nervous about taking on a subject in which they have limited training and expertise.

For any of this to be possible, there is broad agreement that additional training would increase confidence among teachers, and that schools would benefit from a more coordinated approach in order to access high quality, scientifically robust resources and links to the latest climate science. 

Warnings about climate anxiety among young people – as worrying headlines become ever more common – also demonstrate the complexity of getting the right messages across in a constructive way.

National action plan

Addressing any shortfall in climate education is a complex process and doesn’t necessarily have to involve formally changing the curriculum. 

There are already examples of good practice in many schools. Some pupils get the opportunity to explore climate change in “Personal, Social, Health and Economic” (PSHE) lessons, although this tends to be ad hoc and can be dependent on individual teachers.

Organisations such as STEM learning, the Met Office and the Royal Meteorological Society provide many free climate change resources for schools. Scientists also can – and many already do – give their time as STEM ambassadors to support local schools to introduce the basics of climate science to their pupils.

What has been clear throughout discussions with all those involved in our summit is that the momentum is already there. Many of the tools, the will and the commitment of several organisations already exists to improve climate education in schools. 

We hope that a major outcome of our summit will be a national action plan for improving climate education. This can help ensure that knowledge of a warming world reaches more children – giving all young people greater agency to influence their own society and futures, and ensuring that the opportunity to learn about climate change does not come down to luck.

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