Teacher and author Jonny Friend shares his views on the Department for Education’s new Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy…

OK, let’s start with the positive….that the DfE now has a Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy is, without doubt, a step in the right direction.  It’s a sign that, maybe, it is being taken seriously at last.  Or at least that there is a willingness to bring about some positive change. 

Let’s look into some of the details…

It starts with a statement from Nadhim Zahawi, the Secretary of State for Education.  There are points where he is saying the right things, such as recognising that the environmental challenge is greater than the pandemic, a desire for ‘Building Back Greener’ and desire to give all young people the required knowledge and skills, and the importance of hope.  Sounds good. 

But then we see terms such as ‘boost economic growth’. Now, we definitely want a world in which we are all secure, but economic growth means an increase in the amount of goods and services produced per head of the population over a period of time. The question is, is this feasible whilst also combating our Environmental Crisis? In 2021, Earth Overshoot Day, the calendar date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources, was July 29th. In 2022 for the UK it is 19th May.  And the head of education wants to increase how many resources we extract from the Earth and also attain sustainability and mitigate Climate Change?  It’s just not possible and gives us a clear red flag how much a priority all of this really is.

Now let’s look at the vision…

It sounds good – ‘preparing all young people for a world impacted by climate change through learning and practical experience’ is absolutely vital. We also absolutely need to reduce emissions, provide opportunities for young people, increase resilience to Climate Change as well as create a better environment.  Now, there are a number of issues with the term ‘net zero’, not least because it allows the continued increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, whilst relying upon technologies that have either been shown to be unreliable, or which do not yet even exist. We must not fall into the trap of ‘eco-modernism’ in which we rely upon technology to ‘save us’. No, genuine change is required and here, and elsewhere, and this is not mentioned at all.

Anyway, back to the strategy… Let’s look at some of the details:

Let’s start with the ‘National Education Nature Park’. Here, the whole of the schools’ grounds across the country will be included. This will be used to increase biodiversity on this land and increase young people’s connection with nature.  Then schools can share with others across the country to support each other.  Nice!  I think.  Details on how this will happen, and how schools will be able to best implement this haven’t been released yet, and it will be interesting to see if this is just one more thing added on top of what schools are already doing, or whether it will be supported, including financially, in a suitable manner.  Also, since it is for ‘all children and young people [to] have opportunities to get practical experience and turn their knowledge into positive action’ this needs to mean that it will be supported sufficiently so that all young people DO get practical experience and then be able to turn their knowledge into positive action. If this initiative is only available on a small scale within a school, only a small number of students will have the opportunity to get involved and benefit from the scheme.  Since this ‘park’ is being launched this year, i.e. 2022, then it will be interesting to see how this works.

Then we come to the ‘Climate Leaders Award’:

Anything that increases young people’s connection with nature and work on sustainability is welcome, and for some students working towards an award will motivate them, as long as this isn’t suggesting that we only do actions for personal gain. That would go against the very essence of what we are trying to achieve. It also looks like it will be voluntary, so not something everyone will do, and it is unclear what support schools will be provided on this. 

Now let’s look at ‘Sustainability leadership’:

Here, the ‘end goal’ (which sounds rather long-term) is for every educational setting to have a sustainability lead.  This will be supported by ‘carbon literacy training for all sustainability leads in every nursery, school and college by 2025’.  Not sure on any more details with this.  Absolutely each setting should have such a lead, so this great, but it needs to be given the proper support and made clear that it must be up amongst each schools’ high priorities.  We await further on this too. 

Let’s now look at the actual education being proposed…

Let’s be honest, the amount of environmental education currently within the stated science, geography and citizenship is extremely limited. Geography is even an optional subject at GCSE. The strategy states that D&T, Food and Economics also ‘provide opportunities’, but this essentially means that it’s not a requirement and is down to individual teachers and/or schools.  This is clearly not good enough and not something that should be spun into something more positive than it is.

Then there is the new Natural History GCSE which is to be introduced from September 2022.  Whilst it is potentially an important and useful course, it, like everything else for the student’s education, is optional.  I’m not sure how this fits in with the vision point that it will be for preparing all young people.  It also ignores the need for every subject to play a vital role.  Different students engage better with different subjects.  We know that just looking at the facts, and understanding the science is not enough for many people.  Where are the opportunities for young people to explore their feelings and empathy, express their creativity, and investigate why some people still deny human caused Climate Change, despite the overwhelming evidence that it very real, and not something for the future, but is happening right now?  What is clear is that environmental education must be implemented across all areas of the curriculum. 

For any of these changes, significant teaching will be required for staff.  It is stated within the strategy that science teachers will receive Climate Change and Sustainability CPD, but what about the rest? Well, it is also stated that there will be the ‘opportunity’ for all staff to build their understanding of Climate Change and Sustainability, through their ‘Sustainability Leads’. That’s it. Nothing compulsory, which means that not every school, who face all kinds of other pressures, will carry this out. 

There is more included too, such as on buildings and energy systems, but it is all of a similar theme as above. 

In summary….

The Department for Education’s new Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy feels a bit like COP26.  Some positives, and definitely better than we had previously, but overall, a real disappointment. The final outcomes in both show a lack of true recognition of just how serious the Environmental Crisis really is. One small step forward, when it could have been a game changer. 

As those working within education, we need to support each other and go beyond this, fighting together for the future.  After all, it is our climate, our future, and there is a better way!

Jonny Friend is a UN accredited Climate Change teacher and author of ‘Our Climate Our Future; a comprehensive guide to the environmental crisis’ www.ourclimateourfuture.co.uk. Chapters on energy and food, from consumption to technology and biodiversity, governments, systems, media, and the power of people are all covered in this wide ranging and thought provoking debut.