Dr Leigh Hoath is an Associate Professor at Leeds Trinity University. She leads Science Education in the Institute of Childhood and Education.
The launch of the DfE’s Sustainability and Climate Change strategy has resulted in some lively discussion within the education sector. In some camps there is a great deal of enthusiasm for this, and a clear welcoming of the new Natural History GCSE from OCR. Others express concerns about too little too late, the implications of another qualification, including that something else within a pupil’s education will need to be sacrificed to take up this offer, and a general concern about how this will all manifest in practice.
I have the privilege to work alongside some valued colleagues from schools, Higher Education, and Government departments who share one aim – to make the implementation of any strategy relating to the sustainability and climate agenda as meaningful as possible. We work from a moral perspective and are driven to add a small positive contribution to the discussion – things are going to happen in this area, it is about making those changes as positive as possible.
A word I have already mentioned, and keep returning to in the countless conversations I have recently had in relation to the strategy and any subsequent actions, is ‘meaningful’. Another I find myself using frequently during discussions is ‘problematic’. The translation of any strategy into practice is always going to be challenging and this one comes with a level of emotion associated with it in many quarters. There is anger that not enough has been done soon enough. There is criticism of it being superficial and lacking coherence. There are some positive perspectives shared about it being a move in the right direction. And there are a number of things that have occurred to me in recent weeks and months related to the strategy and the moves happening as a consequence.
Firstly, a large number of people and organisations are now playing in this space. I’m not criticising this as I am one of them, however small a contribution I am making. Some of these organisations and bodies are working towards a common goal – it was nothing short of fabulous to see the Chief Executives from the Association for Science Education, the Geographical Association, and the Association for Citizenship Teaching in the same conversation trying to work together to find a way forward at the launch event on April 21st at the Natural History Museum. However, there are other organisations trying to make their mark and be the ones to make the biggest difference, to be the provider of the way to address the educational aspects of the strategy – understandable, but would it not be better with something as important as this to have a shared path rather than a competitive one?
Secondly, there needs to be some real clarity around what we’re talking about when using terms such as sustainability – in the public domain and within schools and educational settings. There is of course the ‘green’ thread of this but there also needs to be consideration of the economic and societal threads – and yes, these also play a part in the education learners receive around sustainability and climate change. Nadhim Zahawi spoke at the launch of the need to develop ‘carbon literacy’ and he’s not wrong on this. We have seen the chaos that can be caused through a lack of understanding of terminology and scientific principles during the Covid-19 pandemic – in order to make this strategy work a shared language has to evolve. This has implications for teachers’ subject knowledge before we consider how this might be taught to learners. CPD is a must but once again I come back to the word meaningful – this is going to require more than a day’s course on what it means to be sustainable and what climate change is, which leads me onto my third point.
Where is the capacity for this? The school curriculum is pressured, teachers and learners are held to account over Progress 8 scores for example, and we are still in a period of flux following two very disrupted years. Whilst teachers may welcome the need for this teaching to take place, I am confident there are many in fear of what this means for workload – never mind the practicalities of where it fits in the day.
I would like to finish on a more positive note however! It may be overdue, it may be problematic and there may be a lot of work to do in order to make the implementation of this strategy meaningful (and work!). It is however here and that is a step forward. People will never agree on one way to do this – and there is no silver bullet in teaching so this will be no different. We do now have something to work with and although not perfect, something is better than nothing. By listening to those working in, and closely with, schools there is an opportunity to get the translation of strategy into action as right as it can ever be. It is going to take a real concerted effort, perhaps open mindedness and definitely selfless collaboration in order to bring about the changes needed in society’s behaviour if this planet and its limited resources are to be saved. I have to remain optimistic that this is possible and there is the hope of walking a path that brings organisations together to make a meaningful difference, facing into the problems and helping each other to overcome the hurdles we know will be en-route.