Today’s post is by Mark Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Science Education (and Deputy Course Director for BA Primary Education with QTS) at Birmingham City University. The text was originally published in the University’s Education Journal Magazine (Winter 2021), and is a ‘think-piece’ is in response to the draft strategy on sustainability and climate change presented by the Secretary of State for Education at COP26 (DfE 2021). The strategy is considered in relation to existing debates in the fields of environmental education (EE) and the emerging field of Climate Change Education (CCE) research. Mark’s response is partly a polemic provocation and is shaped by his own position as a teacher educator struggling with how his professional ethical responsibilities intersects with his personal political engagement in climate activism and protest. Mark explores how the strategy seeks to utilise notions of teacher impartiality to depoliticise CCE while simultaneously advancing a neoliberal agenda and constraining debate on issues of justice, equity and values. As ever with NAEE blogs, the views expressed are not necessarily those of the Association.


This ‘think-piece’ is in response to the draft strategy on sustainability and climate change presented by the Secretary of State for Education at COP26 (DfE 2021). The strategy is considered in relation to existing debates in the fields of environmental education (EE) and the emerging field of Climate Change Education (CCE) research. The treatment is partly a polemic provocation and is shaped by my own position as a teacher educator struggling with how my professional ethical responsibilities intersect with my personal political engagement in climate activism and protest. I explore how the strategy seeks to utilise notions of teacher impartiality to depoliticise CCE while simultaneously advancing a neoliberal agenda and constraining debate on issues of justice, equity and values.  I hope, as a think piece, it opens up space for debate and critical reflection to challenge the boundaries of our professional responsibilities as educators.  The full text of the Draft Strategy ‘sustainability and climate change- A draft strategy for the education & children’s services systems’ ( DfE, 2021) is available here:

As an educator who has campaigned to see climate change taken seriously in the curriculum, I can see much to celebrate in the strategy. It shows a breadth of ambition.

“Through a better understanding of the facts, a greater appreciation of nature, and practical opportunities to participate in activities to increase climate resilience and enhance biodiversity, we will empower all young people to be truly global citizens, able to take positive steps to improve their local communities, their country and the planet.”    (DfE 2021:12)

It may seem churlish of me to look a gift horse in the mouth but, at the risk of mixing metaphors, before wheeling this particular gift horse through the city gates it may be advisable to look at what hides within.

A new curriculum?

A broad taxonomy in Environmental Education (EE) categorises education ‘about’, ‘in’ and/or ‘for’ the environment (Hedefalk, Almqvist and  stman, 2014). These strands are evident in the strategy with an emphasis on a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum (about), establishing a new virtual National Education Nature Park (in), and encouraging children to participate in projects improving the sustainability and biodiversity around their schools (for). Each of these areas might be deconstructed but I start here with considering the curriculum approach to CCE within the strategy.  It would be easy to take the impression from the strategy that the curriculum will undergo radical change. To the contrary, the strategy seems to restates previous DfE assertions (e.g. Gibb, 2021) that the existing curriculum already covers the content required.

“Within schools, the science, geography and citizenship programmes in the National Curriculum at both primary (KS1-2) and secondary (KS3-4) cover key content which supports knowledge and understanding of sustainability and climate change” (DfE 2021:12)

There is no mention here of an intention to rewrite the curriculum except in relation to primary science where the strategy will…

“Develop a Primary Science Model Curriculum, to include an emphasis on nature and the recognition of species – including species native to the United Kingdom – to ensure all children understand the world around them.” (DfE 2021:12)

Given the existing primary curriculum (DfE, 2013) already expects children to be able to identify common species and has a strong emphasis on biology this is hardly a ground-breaking shift. The strategy focusses on giving children the ‘building blocks of knowledge needed to understand’ (DfE 2021:12) the ‘causes and impacts’(Ibid.) of climate change. 

The draft strategy repeatedly talks about these ‘causes of climate change’ but avoids delineating what causes are to be considered legitimate for inclusion. The focus on science as a curriculum area implies a narrow definition of causes centred on understanding the science or physical geography of global warming and the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. However a key enduring and discomfiting finding in the Environmental Education (EE) literature is that knowing about environmental issues does not by itself have much impact on behaviours for the environment (Kollmus and Agyeman, 2002; Marcinkowski and Reid 2019) and learning is strongly mediated by existing worldviews (Kahan, Peters, and Wittlin, 2012).

Presenting CCE as being concerned simply with scientific knowledge about climate change leaves little space for the very important work of education as a whole in responding to what it means for humanity, ethically, morally, culturally, emotionally and ultimately ontologically. Without enabling children to explore the ethical, social and historical dimensions of climate change and their own concerns and anxieties they remain unable to critically engage with the issue. The conclusion for many in EE is that it is not possible to separate environmental education from political education (Niebert, 2019: Hodson, 2014; Bencze and Alsop, 2014).

Henderson et al (2017) argue that the field of CCE should extend beyond science education to disciplines not currently engaging in the problem and ask:

“What are the ethical and moral obligations for those tasked with educating about climate change?”

A search in the draft strategy for ethics and morals or a search for ‘values’ or ‘climate justice’ reveals these concepts are entirely absent despite intergenerational justice and global inequality being central to any appreciation of the social impacts of climate change.   Furthermore, Busch, Henderson and Stevenson (2018, citing work by Howell (2013) and Howell and Allen (2016)) conclude that significant early life experience (for example spending time outdoors) or having biocentric values such as ‘a connection to nature’ are not strongly correlated with adopting pro environmental behaviours. What appears more significant is if the participants’ value system is based on altruism; values including equality, social justice and peace. Values and justice are political concepts and Social change sits at the heart of environmental education’s mission (UNESCO 1978) but the approach to climate change and sustainability within the strategy is studiously apolitical.

In contrast the strategy keeps a tight focus on ensuring children will be ‘equipped with the right knowledge, understanding and skills to meet their biggest challenge head on.’ (DfE 2021:4) This challenge is framed primarily as a technical problem and therefore CCE becomes centred on climate science literacy and techno-optimism and the production of STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) graduates working to find technical solutions for adaptation and mitigation.

Within the strategy CCE is transposed via STEM from a ‘challenge’ (p6) to an ‘opportunity’ (p6) before emerging as a space for ‘innovation’ (p15) as ‘Britain leads the world into a new Green Industrial Revolution (p15)’. Climate change education is thereby folded into a business as usual neoliberal education system to ‘help grow future talent pipelines and deliver the skilled individuals needed’ (p15). The use of the word pipeline is appropriate given the petro-chemical industry’s ongoing engagement in ‘petro-pedagogy’ and the promotion of a neoliberal model of STEM education based on its own corporate and capitalist interests (Tannock, 2020).

The impartial teacher

The draft strategy exhibits an almost palpable paranoia over teachers who might explore climate change education from a political perspective; the section on curriculum (DfE 2021:12) devotes nearly as much space reminding teachers and schools of their legal duty to political impartiality as it does to saying how it proposes to enhance climate change education.

Perhaps this is understandable given UK based research showing ‘a teacher workforce with an interdisciplinary vision for CCE encompassing social justice issues and participation in social action’…, ‘ready and willing to move forward with radical, action-oriented CCE programmes that can help drive change rather just respond to it.’ (Howard-Jones, Sands, Dillon and Fenton-Jones, 2021). This vision of radical social action sits in stark contrast with the ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’( DfE 2021:13) espoused in the strategy to give children ‘a better understanding of the facts’ (Ibid:12).

When the strategy does acknowledge that wider socio-political issues exist it does so with an immediate warning attached: ‘in climate education there may be relevant political issues and partisan political views, for example on social and economic reform, that should be handled in line with schools legal duties on political impartiality.’ (Ibid:12).  This is hardly a welcoming invitation for UK teachers to explore these ‘relevant political issues’ and they could be forgiven for limiting their role ‘to conveying factual information about climate science’ in the same way as some American science teachers have (Monroe et al, 2020).  

However while science education about the environment can be presented in an impartial way it is not immediately obvious if this is also true when it comes to education for the environment . As Ferkeny and White (2013:11) explain, ‘Executing the pedagogical equivalent of putting an ‘environmental responsibility pill’ in students’ drinking water, for instance, would not do’. If educating for the environment includes the aim of transforming children into environmentalists it becomes incompatible with the fundamental ideals of a liberal education to create autonomous citizens.

There are certainly moral dilemmas here facing teachers willing to engage with a more politicised climate change education but the concept of neutrality is a red herring. As Richard Shaull reminds us in his introduction to Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed.

“There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes “the practice of freedom,” the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” (Shaull, 2015).

Today more than ever in the face of the climate emergency and the complexity of the social justice issues it raises we need an education system willing to respond to this challenge and allow the next generation the opportunity to escape the taken for granted that is destroying their future to satisfy the needs of the present.  

Jensen and Schnack (1997) initiated the idea of ‘action competence’ as a means of promoting such agency but without advocating for a particular position and restricting autonomy. Their approach presents children with authentic problems where they are involved in making decisions and, crucially, carry out activities they themselves identify as helping to solve the problem. In this manner they build up a repertoire of competencies as active empowered citizens.  Research in the UK indicates that the majority of teachers believe the right to take part in legal protests or even civil disobedience should form part of this repertoire for action competence which children should develop as they grow into active democratic citizens (Howard- Jones et al. 2020). The strategy however takes another opportunity to caution against empowering pupils in overtly political activity and reminds teachers of their neutrality: “Whilst schools should support pupil’s interest in climate change and tackling both its causes and effects, it would not be appropriate to encourage pupils to join specific campaigning groups or engage in specific political activity, such as protests.”(DfE 2021:12). Indeed, the right of political protest itself is under threat in the UK (Liberty, 2021:11).

The taken for granted view of teachers as needing to leave their personal politics at the classroom door is co-opted tomake a case that schools should be free of all politics. Giroux (2020, pp223) identifies the argument, advanced by proponents of the status quo, ‘that schools should be places where matters of power, values, and social justice should not be addressed’ and if there is any transgression of this principle of teacher neutrality then ‘ the usual scornful accusation … is that teachers who believe in civic education indoctrinate their students’. By utilising teachers own anxiety over the charge of indoctrination he argues ‘pedagogy is reduced to a banal transmission of facts in which nothing controversial can be stated and teachers are forbidden to utter one word related to any of the major problems facing the larger society.’ Teachers may therefore avoid straying too close to advocacy (Monroe et al, 2020) or activism (Campigotto and Barrett, 2017) as conflicting with their own socially curated professional self-image. The identity of the impartial teacher instils a governmentality where the professional ethics that police the norms and behaviours of the teacher become an internalised technology of the self (Foucault, 1988).

The draft strategy proposes teachers improve climate education by using free ‘high quality curriculum resources’ delivered through ‘approved platforms’. But where will these free high quality resources come from and by whom and by what criteria will approval be regulated? While the strategy demands teachers remain impartial the question arises if the government is prepared to do the same. For the past 50 years Environmental Education has been concerned with highlighting the deleterious effects of extractive deregulated neoliberal market fundamentalism on the environmental commons. If the strategy is serious about empowering children to understand the causes of climate change then some consideration and criticism of the role of capitalism is surely central (Klien, 2015). Yet in 2020 the DfE censured the use of anti-capitalist materials in the teaching of Sex and Relationship Education (DfE 2020). It is doubtful the DfE Approved platforms will countenance materials from organisations that question the neoliberal ideology of our time or any that encourage genuine transformational and radical education to explore the values at the root of the Anthropocene. Might we expect instead, the following cheery offering from British Petroleum’s education service.

“How will we tackle climate change? How can we make energy cleaner? What will we eat tomorrow? Science can help us find innovative technological solutions to the challenges we face.”(BP International Limited, 2021)


I have focussed on those aspects of the draft strategy that seem to me to be problematic; on how neoliberal conceptions of education embedded within the strategy play on our own subjectivities as educators to constrain the scope of legitimate action and how this limits CCE to a technical rather than moral endeavour.  The account is partial and I would add that alternative readings will find aspects to celebrate in the draft strategy. At the very least it signals a first step in responding the climate and ecological crisis and an acknowledgment of the DfE’s responsibility to young people to develop a curriculum fit for the challenges ahead. But, ultimately, despite its grand sounding claims, the strategy seeks to maintain business as usual within our existing curriculum, control how CCE is framed and supress political dissent.  

The challenge for educators is to have the courage to craft new spaces away from ‘approved platforms’ and if necessary away from schools entirely. To place justice above neutrality in our professional identity and empower children to replace the dysfunctional logic of the present system.


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