Today’s post is from Ben Ballin, the chair of the West Midlands Sustainable Schools Network [@wmsussch ].  He is an NAEE Fellow and writes here in a personal capacity

Young people are on the march against climate change, inspired by the Swedish climate striker Greta Thunberg and her accusation that older generations are “stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”  How do we as environmental / sustainability educators best respond to their powerful challenge, and not least the UK Student Climate Network demand that the National Curriculum to be reformed to address the “ecological crisis as an educational priority”?

At the end of February, I made a short presentation about this to about forty people in the Climate Reality Global Education Group, an alliance of interested parties around the world.  How had we got to the point where young people were demanding such a strongly-directed response from the education system?  It is not, after all, as if there have been no attempts by government to put the environment and/or climate change and/or sustainable development on the education agenda in England.

However, such attempts have been something of a long and winding road of policy and emphasis shifts, of passing responsibility from one agency to another, of stuttering stops and slow reboots.  These include:

  • 1988: The first National Curriculum for England and Wales includes Environmental Education as a ‘cross curricular dimension’.
  • 1992: Agenda 21, Chapter 36 requires local and national government to “Promote Education, Public Awareness and Training” of sustainable development. A plethora of initiatives, projects and local government posts ensues.
  • 1998: The Holland Report proposes ‘key concepts for sustainable development’ – this coincides with a broadening of curriculum concerns to embrace statutory Citizenship Education.
  • 2000: A new National Curriculum for England features environment, sustainability and global citizenship as strong elements within Science, Geography, Design Technology, Citizenship and PE.  There are passing references to climate change. Sustainable development is prominent in the curriculum’s values, purposes, aims and aspects.
  • 2000s: Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship are promoted by QCA as non-statutory whole school ‘dimensions’.
  • 2006-10: DEFRA’s Sustainable Schools Framework proposes 8 ‘doorways’.  It is well-resourced but non-statutory.  Regional governments play a key support role and it gets a mention on the Ofsted self-evaluation framework.
  • 2006-8: DEFRA’s Climate Challenge Fund aims to raise awareness about climate change.  £8.6 million is distributed in grants via 83 project delivery partners, of which £1.9 million is provided to projects explicitly targeted at young people.
  • 2010: The Coalition government comes in with a new broom, and sweeps away the Sustainable Schools Framework, regional government and former sustainability champions QCA.  In 2016, the Department of Energy and Climate Change is abolished.
  • 2014: Another new National Curriculum for England sees Environmental Education weakened and some references (e.g. in Primary Geography) removed. However, there are explicit references to climate change in Secondary Science (KS4) and Geography (KS3 /GCSE).  The growing number of academies are not obliged to follow this curriculum.
  • 2014: SDG 4.7, signed by the UK government, requires it by 2030 to “ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development.”

So much for government.  An alternative timeline would show that – whatever national government did – educators, charities, councils and publishers have often seized the initiative for themselves.  A glance at projects that I had some personal connection with would show networks like Tide~ global learning engaging in numerous teacher projects on climate change between 2000 and 2010, producing resources and hosting events.  So too did the West Midlands regional broadband network, local authorities like Worcestershire and Birmingham, even a Theatre in Education company.  The pattern is the West Midland region was repeated elsewhere.

However, a closer glance would also show that much of this work was at least partly funded by the Climate Challenge Fund, which stimulated a short-lived bubble of activity during its brief spell on Earth. So, while today there is still energetic, positive and innovative activity in our region from the likes of Sustrans, SKIPS Educational, School Energy Efficiency and Solutions for the Planetits scale and visibility has declined from the late 2000s peak.

So here we are, perhaps twelve years from the brink, facing the prospect of a new mass extinction.  What can we say today to those young climate protestors?  How can they trust us not to steal their future in front of their eyes?

I think we can be clear with young people that there is a role for government, but we can’t always rely on it.  Perhaps their demands, ironically, put too much faith in national government? What we really need the state to do is to act where it can be most effective.

Meanwhile, there are local and regional networks that can help support them in addressing the “ecological crisis as an educational priority.”  For example, at the last meeting of the West Midlands Sustainable Schools Network, we decided to make contact with school strikers, as we felt it would be helpful for them (and their teachers) to see that people are already out there, taking these matters seriously.  We also decided to strengthen our network’s connection to other networks, regionally and nationally.  It may help young people to see that strong networks (like theirs and ours) can be functional and resilient, especially given the short-term attention span of the political process.  Meanwhile, national bodies like SEEd and NAEE can also offer support and their own campaigns for curriculum change.

it seems to me that at the heart of the young people’s curriculum demands is a sense of urgency, more than a demand for formal content.  To take an analogy, we can know in principle how recycling works without actually recycling a single thing.  Climate education is therefore not just about ‘knowing stuff’ (which is already there in the National Curriculum) but about urgent priorities and powerful values.  (That said, as anyone who has taught a cross-curricular topic will know, there is an ‘embeddedness pitfall’: if content is not made explicit, it often gets lost in the mix).

Significantly. the climate strikers have already realised that sustainable change is not about chasing the money.  However, as the Climate Challenge Fund example shows, better resourcing really can make a difference, especially if resourcing is sustained and well-directed, rather than intermittent and scattergun.

Finally, and most importantly, the climate strikers tell us that it is time to panic.  Our house is on fire.  We are making a contribution, but is it enough?  What else can we come up with together?

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Ben can be contacted at: benballin@hotmail.com