Communicating climate change: back and forth between school and community

Bruce Huett

This paper describes and analyses one of the four mini-projects from HEIF described in the introduction. The paper takes the premise that communicating climate change to effect change in societal behaviour is a very important issue (Sheppard, 2012) and that children can be powerful communicators of such matters as initial triggers for debate within the wider community (Mitchell, 2008).

The primary school in which this project took place is a small Church of England Voluntary Controlled school with four mixed-age classes and a total of about 100 pupils. Pupils come from the local and surrounding villages and are almost exclusively of white British heritage. The village has a population of about 800, mainly middle class inhabitants and is picturesque, with many thatched cottages surrounding an impressive green. A tributary of the Cam River, the Rhee, flows through the village and it is below a chalk escarpment which runs east to west across this part of Cambridgeshire.

One of the key aims for this school is “to retain its close links with the community and … develop these further” so when this project on the past, present and future of environmental change was initiated, the facilitators from the University of Cambridge (Social Anthropology Division and Faculty of Education) and the teachers were keen to ensure a strong interaction with the local community and firm links to the curriculum. As such the (non-statutory) guidelines for citizenship in the primary curriculum were used to help frame the community elements. These guidelines identify the importance of interaction with local issues, group work and participating in debate and discussion. They also highlight understanding the social choices individuals and the wider community have to make and the potential for conflict these might generate. The guidelines then link these concepts to ideas for resolving differences by looking at alternatives, making decisions and explaining choices. In addition, children should understand what improves and harms their local, natural and built environments and how to influence governmental decisions.

With these guidelines in mind, the facilitators of the project identified an issue to frame the programme around; the cause of some local controversy, as it had wider environmental and social aspects. This was a planning application for about 200 houses on a disused cement works on the outskirts of the village.  The cement works and its associated chalk pit is of geological and historical significance. It is a site of special scientific interest, is biodiverse and also has some environmental issues with links to the local water courses and a dedicated railway line. This site, its past, present and future, provided the framework for a week of cross-curricular activities involving all the children in the school. The way we interacted with the community was both to bring community members in and to share our work with the community as described below.

One class was invited to consider ideas for the potential development of the cement works site. The site manager and company communications officer visited the school, provided a detailed history and responded to informed questions from the children about its future. A local parish and district councillor outlined the planning issues and again responded to a rich range of questions from the children. The children visited the works, an ‘eco home’ and a sustainable organic smallholding and then developed, in teams, some very imaginative proposals for the future of the site.

Another class investigated the local river and particularly the endangered water vole population. This involved negotiations with the riparian owners in the village and the voluntary drainage maintenance team. There was a link to the cement works as its closure had impacted the water table. This project also researched the spiritual aspects of water, linking to another element of the citizenship curriculum.  There was also significant community interaction for another group. The parish council had been gifted a small woodland area by the cement works company which they had converted into a nature reserve situated at the back of the school. The plan was to build an environmental sculpture there. The children created a maze, using chalk from the disused cement works, and imaginative tree sculptures constructed with natural materials. However the negotiations with the parish council were not straightforward and the children were disappointed that the maze and the sculptures were removed shortly after construction. This reinforced the children’s view that this wood, which had once been a natural playground for them, was now ‘preserved’ from them, losing some of its untamed power (Irvine et al. 2016).  They commented that the cutting down of some trees, clearing of brushwood and installation of seats meant that the space had lost its “wild” character and they felt less comfortable playing creatively in the area. Thus, this well-intentioned community project to make a wood safe and accessible had (through its inattention to child communication) led to their eventual exclusion.

The church community took a strong interest with the vicar facilitating a visit to the interior of the church (which was not straightforward as the church was being renovated) to view the walls which were made with chalk (clunch) from the cement works. The Friends of the school and the governors were supportive and funded some of the activities.  It was clear from interviews with the children that the environmental knowledge experience was communicated to a wider network in the community, including friends and relatives. Parents and other villagers were involved in several of the visits from the school to the chalk pit, river, wood, sustainable farm and eco building.

At the end of the project, the school pupils made presentations to members of the community at a celebration assembly. This was extremely well attended and each of the classes presented their findings. Discussions with the adults over coffee and cakes after the assembly indicated that understanding of the project was well distributed in the village.  The subject of environmental education as a stimulus for communication and possibly community action is effectively discussed in Uzell (1999). He concludes that, to be successful, the barriers between the school and the community need to be broken down through co-operation and dialogue on concrete, local environmental issues and their possible solution.

The local print media published accounts of the activities and the movie, which had been made by the children, was archived by the local history society. Children from the school also presented their findings at a workshop at a Cambridge college involving academics, teachers, artists and other children. There was thus a significant dissemination of the environmental ideas circulating during the week of the project which may, in time, influence a shift in behaviour.

This project demonstrates how such a whole-school approach can make a significant contribution to the way that a school can address curriculum requirements, and how environmental issues that are locally situated, involving co-operation and dialogue with the local community, can lead this work. Whilst this paper focuses on the non-statutory guidelines for citizenship education, the project also contributed to elements of the science, English and maths curriculum. This project begins to demonstrate how a brave approach to bringing together the school and its local community around an issue of local significance can have far-reaching impacts that not only address learning from a curricular perspective but also contribute to lifelong learning throughout communities.


Irvine, R, E Lee, M Strubel, B Bodenhorn (2016) Exclusion and reappropriation: experiences of contemporary enclosure among children in three East Anglian schools, Environment and Planning D 34(5):935-954

Mitchell T et al.(2008) The Roles of Children and Youth in Communicating Disaster Risk. Children, Youth and Environments 18.1: 254–279.

Sheppard,S (2012) Visualizing Climate Change, London and New York Routledge

Bateson in Moser (2007) Creating a climate for change, Cambridge CUP p242

Citizenship: Key Stage 1 (2011)

Morrison,N (2013) Teaching citizenship in primary schools: a how-to guide. The Guardian

The National Curriculum in England Key stages 1 and 2 framework document (2013) The Department of Education


Bruce Huett is an associate member of the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge and an active member of the local history society in the village of Meldreth, Cambridgeshire. He is also a member of several local conservation groups and has worked on environmental projects using local artists at several schools in Cambridgeshire.  Contact:

This article was first published in NAEE’s 2017  journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 114).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.


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