Concerns are growing that UK children are not being taught adequately about the emergency
Like many young people, Joe Brindle, 17, is scared for the future because of the climate crisis. He is, he says, “angry about the injustice that is allowing the most vulnerable people in the world to suffer from the actions of the richest and most powerful”. So Brindle, who is preparing for his A-levels in Devizes, Wiltshire, decided to do something. On top of his studies, he founded a campaign group, Teach the Future, which has spent the last few months formulating legislation entitled the climate emergency education bill. The latest version has just arrived in his inbox: it has been written by a professional parliamentary draftsperson, paid for by crowdfunding.
“We didn’t want our demands to be half met, so we thought we’d show them exactly what we want,” says Brindle. Hiring an experienced drafter was a nifty move to quash any notion that young people’s ideas are unworthy of serious consideration. Brindle hopes the bill will be taken forward by the government, “or it could be a private members bill”.
On 26 February Brindle and his fellow campaigners will gather in parliament’s biggest committee room to launch their bill, sponsored by Nadia Whittome, the UK’s youngest MP.
Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, in her blistering speech to the United Nations last September, said that as young people begin to understand adults’ betrayal of the planet, “the eyes of all future generations” will be watching. Now young people in the UK are demanding that the government address the climate emergency through radical reform of what – and how – pupils learn. But is the government listening?
Brindle founded Teach the Future to campaign for a sustainable education system, after being inspired by the global school strikes that began in 2018. Its six demands are uncompromising, he says. “We feel the education system is wasting our time, because we’re facing the biggest issue of our time, and our education isn’t even touching on it.”
As well as the proposed new act, Teach the Future is calling for a government review into how the education system is preparing students for the climate emergency and the ecological crisis. It wants teacher training to assess a minimum standard of knowledge about climate change and its impact, and a national fund to help young people’s voices be heard. It calls for all new state-funded educational buildings to have a zero-carbon footprint from 2022, with the entire education sector becoming net-zero by 2030, and a youth climate endowment fund to support young people’s projects and ideas.
Last week the prime minister said the UK would lead the world in cutting carbon emissions, but was accused by Claire O’Neill, a former energy minister, of a “huge lack of leadership and engagement”. So, can our education system – and the Department for Education – step up?
Many teachers have their own ideas. In Leeds, Matt Carmichael, a long-time environmental campaigner, and English and drama teacher, who has spoken at events run by the Extinction Rebellion Educators group (XR Educators), is dedicating up to three days a week unpaid to develop an action plan for schools. This will not only mean changing what is taught, Carmichael says, but recognising that our education system itself has an impact on the planet through carbon emissions, building projects and procurement practices.
Carmichael’s five action points include changing how buildings are heated; preparing schools for extreme weather; and addressing the mental health implications for students of fully comprehending the climate emergency. “What happens if our temperature levels are smashed by five degrees as happened in France? Then there’s flooding, and high winds. I don’t think schools would have a clue how to make children safe. We’re going to have to think about it.”
While some schools are adapting their curriculum content, many others are “burying their heads in the sand as they always did”, he says. Everyone is operating “in the most astonishing radio silence” from the Department for Education, he adds. “There’s no guidance, no staff training and no accountability structure, so schools have no idea what the government thinks they are responsible for doing about climate change. It seems business as usual is fine by the DfE, but that’s not acceptable to a lot of students, parents and teachers.”
The DfE says it understands the importance of students learning about climate change and “relevant topics are included in the national curriculum for both primary and secondary schools”. However, when asked if there were plans for new guidance, a spokesperson could offer nothing specific.
Frances Bowman, a sixth form art and design teacher in London and a member of XR Educators, says children need to be supported through the “fear, guilt, anger and sadness” many feel. Sadness, she says is the one that students keep bringing up, “because there’s so much being lost. And the kids feel that more acutely, I sense, than the adults do.”
Bowman says Extinction Rebellion has inspired her to reassess her responsibilities as an educator. “I feel quite cautious about the protest part of it, but there is an urgency to it,” she says – and the curriculum needs to take account of that. “The climate crisis means things are going to change, and yet we teach as if it’s all going to just go on as it is.”
Some organisations are creating resources. A free “climate curriculum”, launched by the social enterprise ThoughtBox Education, and a climate learning week, created by London’s City and Islington college and the University and College Union, are two such projects.
But a more comprehensive, deeper and radical approach is urgently needed, says Dr d’Reen Struthers, lecturer at the Institute of Education at University College London. She is campaigning for new thinking about the ethos in schools. “It means rethinking our content-heavy curriculum of information pupils need to regurgitate, and instead helping them learn how to question the insidious agendas that are all about money being made, which have led to this ecological crisis.”
Brindle’s plan, too, calls for a fundamental change. “Some people have been pushing a natural history GCSE as the solution to climate education, but I think this furthers us from the solution,” he says. “Rather than pushing this aside so that only a handful of students learn about it, we should be making it a key aspect of all parts of education.
“We don’t just want future ecologists to understand sustainability. We want bankers, builders and everyone else to consider it in everything they do.”