Today’s blog is written by our Chair of Trustees, Bill Scott.  It explores the issue of a curriculum that is serious about exploring rapid climate change.  Bill is writing in a personal capacity, and these are not NAEE’s views.  The post was published on his own blog yesterday.


Now that it’s become clear that curriculum time in schools need not be spent on exploring the points made by climate change deniers, you might think that life has become easier for teachers who want to deal with the small matter of climate change.  Not so, I fear, as this three-stage argument makes plain:

The stages *

Stage 1.  It is clear that time in schools must be devoted to climate itself – what is it?  how is it different to weather?  what determines it?  how and why does it vary from place to place?  how and why does it change over time?  what timescales are involved?  etc, etc.  The basics, as it were.  Unless you’re a researcher, this is pretty uncontroversial geography.  A lot  – if not most – of it is, one way or another, in the school curriculum now.

Then there has to be a focus (Stage 2) on the evidence for a rapidly changing climate which coincides to a degree with the evidence of global heating.  There’s some physics in here but its not the difficult and often counter-intuitive  quantum stuff.  Although, it’s not as controversial as it was, there is still considerable discussion about the meaning of the data – which the IPCC and NASA have in abundance.  Just how valid the climate models are continues to be tested and contested, but the nuances of this are more relevant to study in specialist HE study rather than in schools.  There is not as much scope for consideration of these issues in the current school curriculum as there is with what’s in Stage 1.  This is the area that DfE expects schools to explore if they want to.  There are already resources out there if you look.  DfE says it plans to make this easier.

It gets much more difficult when it comes to Stage 3 because this is not only about looking ahead to what might happen to the atmosphere/ocean system over the next, say, 30 to 80 years – where the IPCC’s scenarios come into play (more physics) – but takes us into the contested muddy ground of thinking about action to either mitigate or adapt, or both.  Here, values come into play because there will be a need for socio-economic / political decisions affecting people’s lives, and not just in the UK.  There are serious questions here about whether an attempt should be made to inculcate values; the rationale for doing so rests on the alleged existential nature of the crises we face where time is short and it’s too late for liberal educational niceties.  Such inculcation is undoubtedly already going on.

Some further difficulties

It’s also going to be tricky (and controversial) in that there will be a need to navigate between the different viewpoints of commentators, and their proposals and prescriptions for the future health of the planet: from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the anti-capitalist Green New Deal at one end, to Bjorn Lomborg’s cost-benefit analysis approach at the other.  Lomborg is founder and President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.  Ocasio-Cortez is a USA Representative who is a leading advocate of radical socio-economic change in the face of our climate and ecological problems.

It seems more than likely in all this that your preferred political positioning might well pre-dispose you to one or other position on climate-related socio-economics.  If you want to see an end to the excesses of capitalism, then the green new deal might just be the thing to go for; however, if you think that the innovation and discipline that markets provide within liberal capitalism are important, you probably won’t.  Either way, given that money can only be spent once, it’s crucial that arguments about what to spend it on what, and when, are aired as widely as possible before decisions are made as openly and democratically as practicable.

Schools are a crucial place for these issues to be initially aired in a balanced fashion.  In terms of what is taught in schools in relation to Stage 3, it’s important that both these extremes (and much in between) are explored as there is currently no social consensus about which route to follow.  One difficulty, however, is that much of the current activism and information around climate and education in schools emanates from the green deal end of the spectrum with both UKSCN and XR (and Labour / Liberal Democratic party activists) supporting such policies.  They also advocate a shift to net zero carbon by 2030 (and not 2050 which is the current national target).  Others see such an accelerated timetable as unrealistic unless economic activity is severely curtailed.

The consideration of such issues are well beyond physics and geography schemes of work (and the DfE’s minimalist prescriptions), and does not fit well where there is a separation of topics into conventional subject areas.  This means that it will continue to be hard for secondary schools to address the issues adequately because of their unintegrated disciplinary structure (and their relentless focus on examinations), but that’s another story …


I’ve used the word stages here because I cannot think of a better one; it does not necessarily imply a chronology of study.


  1. Thanks Bill for this very welcome and timely post.
    I agree that (Stage 1) weather/climate is well covered in the Geography and Science National Curricula (England) from Year 1 onwards and indeed that (Stage 2) the basic mechanics of climate change (including anthropogenic climate change) are at least present in the orders for Secondary Science (KS4) and Geography (KS3 and GCSE). It is worth remembering. of course, that Academies and Free Schools are not required to follow the National Curriculum. And it is worth remembering that being present does not necessarily mean that such things are taught in an interesting and engaging way.
    It would be great to see examples of what Stage 3 could look like in practice. I am aware of a recent serious attempt to create a scheme of work of that type, which is highlighted at … but there must be other good examples out there.
    I also agree (and have argued for some years) that climate change demands a joined-up approach to curriculum, bringing together all three main domains of Science, plus Geography, Citizenship, Design Technology, language and the arts. This case was supported by a series of seminars at Tide~ some time ago, and led to a useful discussion paper which still has validity.
    To flip that argument, with the new Ofsted framework now highlighting curriculum breadth at KS2 and KS3, perhaps now is a good time for schools to revisit some of those arguments and look at climate change as a valid vehicle for creating a coherent, engaged, meaningful, purposeful and joined-up curriculum.
    Finally, you mention DfE guidance. It would be great to have a link if this has been publoished anywhere, especially if they are offering advice on the question of what a ‘balanced’ approach might involve. Recent rhetoric about XR and climate strikers from government has perhaps discouraged some schools from going near this issue, for fear of being seen to support “extremism” of some sort … and it would be good for them to know that they have tacit permission to genuinely engage with the issues.

  2. Thank you. An interesting piece. To add to the debate, this is from ‘’ :
    Project aims to highlight climate change
    Writing in The I, Rachael Pells profiles a project run by eduCCate Global – a UN-accredited teacher-training scheme, which aims to make every school in the UK to have a climate-change ambassador, ensuring all children have access to key facts on environmental factors. Since its launch on 22 April this year, more than 20,000 teachers have signed up, and as many as 77 schools around the world are signing up every hour. The project, which takes around 2 hours to complete online, allows teachers to download slides written by climate change scientists and take in information on cities and climate change, environment and gender, and a module on global policies. It follows a YouGov poll published earlier this year which found that 69% of UK teachers felt there should be greater focus on climate change within lessons, but at the same time around threequarters admitted they did not feel adequately trained on the subject.
    The I, Page: 26,27

  3. Thanks Bill for this as always thought provoking piece and Ben for the additional questions and further information.

    As an LA Advisor leading on a local authority climate emergency consultation starting today with young people this could not be more timely. I do believe the new Ofsted Framework will provide opportunities for schools, one of the challenges I think is that the guidance provided now has an agenda, given that most of the national quango’s have long gone (TDA/ QCA etc) so schools are understandably a little reticent. Personally I belive it schools effectively used the Sustainable Schools Framework of Curriculum; Campus and Community and made explicit connections to the Sustainable Development Goals with all of their complexity and contradictions then this would help our pupils and teachers to effectively engage (through planned activity) with this hugely complicated issue. We also need to ensure that our young people are not scared witless, this is an emergency and we seriously need to make rapid change as a globall society but there is hope, and our young people in schools today may be those creating more solutions in the next 10 years. Active Citizenship at its best

  4. I don’t see any educational requirement for “balance” when presenting arguments from real climate scientists and nutters like Lomborg, any more than the science curriculum should maintain a balance between phlogiston or oxygen being the substance principally involved in burning. Nor does Lomborg represent “an extreme”, unfortunately; there are bags of nuts nuttier still.
    It also seems a bit weird to me to mention two recent student organisations, and “activists” in the Lib-Dem and Labour parties, and entirely omit any reference to either the Green Party or Greenpeace.
    The big missing piece, for me — the elephant not invited into the room — is the question of simulation modelling. This would normally be relegated to the maths ghetto of the curriculum by people who like nice rigid boundaries between traditional subjects, but the multi-disciplinarity problem is worse even than the author suggests; the topic properly belongs under operational research, an inherently multi-disciplinary area hardly taught in schools. Teaching simulation modelling in the climate change area would touch on questions of the philosophy of science, as well as the obvious ones of geography, meteorology, oceanography, physics, cybernetics/GST, and the complexity theory bit of maths. A good course on simulation modelling in this context should leave the students understanding that exact predictive modelling of complex systems is a fool’s errand, and also that criticisms (like Lomborg’s) of climate (or any other) models on grounds that they are “wrong” shows a fundamental failure to understand the nature and utility of modelling. There should be no need for “inculcating values” other than the usual teaching aim of giving kids a built-in crap detector.

  5. Thanks Bill, this is a really useful discussion that needs to be had in schools. I think most schools are currently stuck at stage 1 and it is down to individual teachers (usually geography and science in secondary) whether they even consider with their students anything at stage 2 and 3.
    I think that one way to cut through this and make it less controversial is to frame the learning that is required around nature and the natural world. We need schools to encourage their young people to recognise that humans are part of nature rather than separate to it, and use that lens to explore what we are doing to the natural world. There are many opportunities across all subject areas for this learning to take place. Just as a few examples: in English Nature can be used as an inspiration for creative writing, in History the consequences of industrialisation can be explored, in Maths data can be found in wildlife populations to be analysed. Within this, climate change would naturally be considered, and students would be able to make up their own minds about what action should be taken.
    I totally agree that subject compartmentalisation doesn’t help, and that environmental education would benefit greatly from more cross curricular study, but we don’t have to wait for that to happen. With good leadership and support and training for teachers there are huge opportunities for schools to teach about and explore what is the defining issue for the generation of young people currently in education.

  6. Good points from all. An interesting fact shared recently was that despite being part of the curriculum, the NUS/Green Schools Project pupil survey showed over a third (42%) of young people aged 9-18 say they have learnt only a little, hardly anything or nothing about the environment at school. I suspect that this evidence supports Ben’s statement that subject matter being present does not necessarily mean that such things are taught in an interesting and engaging way.
    Climate Change requires a complex accumulation of knowledge-based learning combined with real world issues that anything but a perfectly integrated (education) system will have difficulty delivering in an age appropriate, constructive and impactful way. Let alone one that leads to informed individuals able to then decide how to use their voices for the outcomes they wish to see in their future.
    I do worry that repeatedly demanding that specific topics be continually added to the national curriculum, (which in itself doesn’t require everyone to engage with it), does not fit well where there is a separation into conventional subject areas. There is a natural inclination to put it into one thing and then strip out related elements that do not fit under the smaller subject umbrella, thereby providing the inability to create a deeper, more integrated learning opportunity. Additionally, with little support for teachers to deliver anything but the bare bones of complex issues (and I use issues as opposed to subject purposely), it is also no surprise teachers are unable to rise to the demands of such a challenge with the lack of training they receive on many wide-reaching topics, let alone allow time for students to mull around the grey areas in between the black and white of agreed facts.

    Should we not be communally striving for every learner to receive an education that equips them to contribute to a just, sustainable and resilient world instead? For me, the issue is broader than ‘simply’ adding in more around the topic of Climate Change or the fact that we face an ecological crisis (and of that I am certain). We need to recognise that education has to foster the development of young people in a way that prepares them for future possibilities, and not skirt around what we, as adults fail to fully understand ourselves.

    Suzanne Welch

  7. One afterthought, which I was thinking about on the train yesterday. It relates to the phrase “money can only be spent once”, which has a commonsensical feel to it. I am no economist but I wonder however is it is strictly true? Money after all is currency: it flows back into a system and emerges again in other parts of the the systems. A decade ago, Nick Stern was telling us that money spent then on climate mitigation would save on much larger sums being spent later: a sort-of insurance policy argument. I imagine it is still true, though the initial outlay would now need to be much higher. Meanwhile, all sorts of energy efficiency measures (a key part of any climate strategy) have an eventual ‘payback’ point where the savings become greater that the initial cost. Thirdly, the ‘Green New Deal’ idea relies in effect on a Keynesian argument that ‘green’ expenditure will stimulate the economy in a benign fashion (so the cost is more like a considered investment than a one-off fee). Finally (and I am sure that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation would have a view on this), a truly sustainable solution would adopt at least some elements of of the ‘circular economy’, where expended resources are systematically reintegrated into the system. All of this suggests to me that a ‘one shot’ economic argument might perhaps not quite be right?

  8. Entirely with you on this one Ben…Money is something our economic system has invented and relies on recirculation back into the system, surely it is the circular economy that nees more attention. Funny, that was the one statement that Bill made that hit me most too!!
    I do feel until we have an integrated ‘real world’ education system these same old arguments about earth/human/non human based realtionships (dareisay issues) will go on and on and never really tackled in a systems based, deeply thoughtful way in our schools..we have been here many times since we all got involved back in the late 1970’s (or even earlier for some of us!).

  9. Thanks, Ben. It’s not often that I’m assured of being “commonsensical”. I understand the point that investment can stimulate activity and further investment, (etc). What I was trying to say what that it’s important to spend money carefully and wisely.

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