David Woollcombe, founder and President of Peace Child International, give his view on the DfE’s new Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy.

If, like me, you have waited since the Rio Earth Summit and Eco-Ed Toronto in 1992, to see a comprehensive effort to introduce Climate and Sustainability education into the UK National Curriculum, the launch of DfE’s Climate / Sustainability Education Strategy on Earth Day 2022 was a significant milestone. 30 years late – and a shadow of the policy it needs to be – it is still a significant milestone as it represents the first time a British government has recognised its moral duty to educate the rising generation about the massive planetary over-draft our generation has bequeathed to them – an overdraft they’re going to find hard, if not impossible, to pay off.

The part leaked early which the Press picked up on was the launch, in 2025, of a Natural History GCSE designed to “give young people a deeper knowledge and understanding of the natural world, do field work and develop greater understanding of conservation.” The policy will also introduce an Annual Climate Literacy Survey, a Climate Leaders Award and a virtual National Education Nature Park designed to “directly involve children and young people in measuring and improving biodiversity in their nursery, school, college or university…. uploading their progress on the Park’s digital mapping services.” Such puddings need to be eaten before any judgement may be made upon them but, for now, we should welcome the Strategy for the emphasis it places on assessment, teacher training (including a new NPQ – National Professional Qualification) – and its emphasis on preparing the rising generation for Green Jobs, 440,000 of them by 2030.

However, the elephant in this strategy room is that nowhere does it make clear how it plans to deal with the natural reaction of any sentient young person to this “deeper knowledge and understanding of the natural world.” Once they learn about the catastrophic impact humanity has had upon the natural world this last century, without North Korean levels of un-critical support for their elders, young people are bound to ask them: “Why the Hell didn’t you do something about this when you could??” Success with this Strategy would make it impossible for UK government to renew North Sea oil licences, licence Cumbrian coal-mines, sell fracking permits etc. It would result in an avalanche of new recruits for Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. Great! – but probably not what Minister Zahawi had in mind when he wrote, in the Foreword to the Strategy, that it would “give young people hope that they can be agents of change….”

Peace Child International(PCI), though far from advocating rebellion or civil disobedience of any kind, might provide a safety valve through its new Forum Theatre programme. The principle is a simple one: the Peace Child musical, famous in the 1980s for showing a way to end the Cold War, has been adapted to enable schools and communities to explore ways to end the Hot War humanity is currently waging against the environment. Drawing on its best-selling Rescue Mission: Planet Earth, PCI’s new play is set in 2070 – in a peaceful, sustainable world. In a flashback to the 2020s, it tells the story of how today’s youth find ways their elders missed to create a positive future.

You can read the 1st Draft Base script here.

To summarise it briefly, it draws on PCI’s new State of the Planet Initiative – an online video animation that aims to update key global indicators in a format that young people can understand and act upon every year on UN Day (October 24th). To be launched on UN Day 2022, the State of the Planet Report forms the first scene of the Forum Theatre show: the young people are so disturbed by the shockingly critical state of our planet they learn about from the Report, they determine to do something. They visit business and political leaders, UN Diplomats, advertising executives, media people, NGO protestors – even military and faith leader if the kids of the cast wish: they can do as many or as few of the scenes as they wish. (There is also a short-form version of the show here.) Every Peace Child script should be re-written by the young cast that performs it: they are invited to imagine themselves to be the young people of the story having these conversations themselves to secure their own future. (I think I am the only playwright in the world whose first instruction to his cast is: ‘Tear up my script and start again…!’)

The point is that every conversation ends with the person interviewed trying to shift responsibility: “It’s not my job…” “I can’t help you….” “That’s way above my paygrade….” “If we did that, we’d go broke!” Etc. This leaves young people facing the brick wall of impossibility that Climate Activists have faced for decades. But, for the cast members of our show, that brick wall is only the 4th wall of the theatre which the young cast break through to come into the audience to ask: “What would YOU do?” The show thus becomes an intergenerational dialogue between children, their parents and community leaders about the most serious existential threats faced by our human family. It is designed to be done in school halls or dinner theatres where cast members can sit with audience members at tables, taking note of the ideas and policy suggestions raised and summarising them in the Report Back scene that follows.

Of course, the Peace Child story has to end back in the peaceful, sustainable world of 2070 – so the Base Script suggests one way that the young people can do that. But – it is up to each cast to come up with their own ending – if possible introducing solutions proposed by the audience.

In its 40 year history, each Peace Child play has used different actual events to trigger new versions of the Story: Reagan’s “Ash-heap of History” speech; the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Rio Earth Summit, the Copenhagen and Paris COPs etc. So I’m thinking: how might the new DfE Climate Change and Sustainability Education Strategy be a trigger? How might it engender the revolution in behaviour and consumption patterns that humanity needs to achieve to turn around the key the global indicators which, in our lifetimes, have told an increasingly depressing story? It’s a stretch because, without bold legislation, courageous tax and subsidy regimes wholly
focussed on sustainability rather than growth, + a reshaped international governance architecture – awareness and education can do nothing: far from inspiring agency, the DfE strategy is more likely to nurture depression, exacerbate mental health issues and instil feelings of hopelessness and despair in young people.

But – I’m working on it! By October, I will have a V2 of the Base Script that is triggered by this Policy featuring ‘sentient, concerned young people’ reacting to it in the way I suggest. I urge schools and community groups to take up this Peace Child challenge to combat what the Prince’s Trust and others have found is a generation increasingly depressed and hopeless about their future. Back in the 1980s when we launched Peace Child, youth had to combat what American psychiatrists called ‘Psychic numbing’ – the tendency of young people to draw down shutters in their minds to shield themselves from the horror of the nuclear war being planned for by the
governments of USA and USSR. Similar anxieties are endemic now – as the DfE policy admits.

To give young people hope – real hope that the world they will be living in by the time they are in their 70s will be better than the one they are living in now – we require much much more than “awareness” or “understanding” of the Natural World or a Natural History GCSE. We have to own up to young people how massively we have screwed up – to tell them the scale and scope of the revolution that they need to deliver in their lifetimes – the challenges they have to rise to – the brick wall problems they have to find a way around. By boldly showing them the nightmare world in which they find themselves, and asserting that our story begins and ends in a peaceful, sustainable future world ( – the one thing that no Peace Child cast can change! – ) we aim to give young people the skills and confidence that they can turn the situation around. They will do it in ways that may make the Mandarins in DfE pale in terror.(Immediate punitive taxation for unsustainable consumption and production + generous subsidies to sustainable behaviours; set a date for the criminalisation of the production, sale and use of fossil fuels; 24/7 school and consumption strikes to achieve these things are just some of the ideas that come up in our Base script.)

If the aim of the DfE Strategy is, genuinely, to “tell the truth about climate change…” and “inspire hope and agency amongst young people,” government has to be ready for the revolution they will unleash – and help steer it, as peacefully as possible, to the peaceful, sustainable world we all want.

David Woollcombe, Author, Peace Child,
Founder and President, Peace Child International

The Peace Child Forum Theatre Project and State of the Planet Report will be formally launched
on UN Day: Monday 24th October 2022. For info & updates, contact: david@peacechild.org

Peace Child Forum Theatre Full-Length Script;

Peace Child Forum Theatre Short-Form Script:

Peace Child Forum Theatre Background Powerpoints:

Peace Child Forum Theatre Home Page: