DfE letter deconstructed

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

On Monday, I posted the contents of a letter from Michael Gove to a student constituent, Calum McDougall (not his real name), about climate change in the curriculum.  The text was actually written by (or for?) Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for School Standards.  In what follows I comment on what Gibb wrote.  My text is in small bold font.

"Dear Michael,

Thank you for your email of 24 February, addressed to the Secretary of State, enclosing correspondence from your constituent, Mr McDougall, regarding climate change in the curriculum.  I am replying as Minister of State for School Standards.

As Mr McDougal is aware, climate change and related topics are developed throughout both the primary and secondary curriculums for science and geography.  Science is a compulsory subject for state maintained schools from Key Stage 1 to 4, while geography is compulsory from Key Stage 1 to 3.  All pupils in state maintained schools will therefore learn about climate change, including its causes and consequences.  Academies and free schools are also required to teach science as part of a curriculum that is similar in breadth and ambition to the National Curriculum."

All this is true although it would be more accurate to say that "... pupils in state maintained schools will therefore learn about [aspects of] climate change ...", but maybe that's being picky.  Mr McDougal is aware of these things because this is not the first letter written to Michael Gove about this issue.

"The current curriculum was developed alongside experts in the science and education communities, including subject specialists, teachers and representatives from Ofsted and learned societies, amongst others.  It sets out a clear, coherent sequence of content to ensure appropriate introduction and development of key scientific concepts and understanding.  However, the curriculum deliberately gives teachers and schools the flexibility to decide how it should be taught."

All this is true as well and it is a key reason why DfE is reluctant to change what is there.
We should note that schools also have the flexibility (and very many would argue the responsibility) to go beyond the confines of the national curriculum to teach what, in their judgement, needs to be taught to their students.  In one sense it might be surprising that this point wasn't made in the letter, especially with the widespread concern from students about the impact that climate change is going to have on their lives.  On the other hand, were DfE to concede this point, it would then be faced with a demand for guidance about what else should be taught (and its sequencing) – something, let me repeat, it is hoping not to do.

"Primary science and geography therefore aim to give pupils a firm foundation for the further study of climate science in secondary school.  Climate change is introduced formally at Key Stage 3 once pupils have developed the appropriate understanding of weather and climate.  However, the primary science and geography programmes of study do cover other related aspects of human impact on the environment.  For example, in Key Stage 2 pupils will begin to look at how environments can change, which can include positive and negative impact of human actions, such as setting up nature reserves or littering."

It is good to see DfE acknowledge that the national curriculum does not envisage young people learning about climate change until Key Stage 3 "once pupils have developed the appropriate understanding of weather and climate".  This was deemed appropriate when the curriculum structures were last settled, but this was a while ago now and the world has caught up with what is essentially a fossilised national curriculum.  Clearly many young people want to learn about climate change in Key Stage 2, and are ready to do so.  Indeed, many primary schools are now enabling this.  Thus DfE finds itself out of step with both young people and the world we all live in.
The risk for the DfE in doing nothing is that schools will pursue the study of climate change without DfE expert guidance (ie, the "clear, coherent sequence of content to ensure appropriate introduction and development of key scientific concepts").  If this happens and goes wrong it will not just be unfortunate for the students concerned, but likely to be picked up by Ofsted.  Neither outcome is consistent with the DfE's own responsibilities to young people, society and the future.  These are all reasons why the DfE should set up the inquiry that Teach the Future is calling for.
Another aspect to this curriculum divide about climate change between key stages 2 and 3 is that those primary schools that stick to the DfE line have to teach about climate without setting it in the context of climate change.  This is akin to teaching about antibiotics without explaining about the increasing problem of bacterial resistance.
NB, to suggest, as the letter does seem to, that the study of nature reserves and littering somehow makes up for the absence of a focus on climate change at Key Stage 2 would be amusing were it not ludicrous.

"As Mr McDougall has set out, teaching about climate change needs to cover a number aspects, including causes, consequences and mitigations. These are all covered in the current National Curriculum. This includes studying climates and climate zones in Key Stages 2 and 3 geography, alongside the greenhouse effect and evidence for other anthropogenic causes of climate change in Key Stages 3 and 4 science.  In addition, pupils will study the impact of increased levels of carbon dioxide and methane and how this can be mitigated in Key Stage 4 science.  In biology, they will continue to study ecosystems, including positive and negative human interactions with ecosystems and their impact on biodiversity.  Finally, the curriculum also teaches pupils about sustainable use of resources, including the efficacy of recycling and renewable energy sources."

It is disingenuous of the DfE to say that "causes, consequences and mitigations ... are all covered in the current National Curriculum".  They might be referred to, but the national curriculum does not provide for an age-appropriate in-depth exploration of these issues.  The contrast between what the curriculum covers at the moment and what some (including me) are suggesting ( see this NAEE blog ) is huge.  The four questions to be covered in the curriculum set out here: [i] What is climate?  [2] What's the evidence for global heating and the changing climate?  [iii] Looking ahead what might happen? and [iv] What can we do? are much closer to what student organisations such as Teach the Future are asking for, than the DfE is currently providing through the national curriculum and GCSE syllabuses.
Another aspect of a student's secondary school experience of the study of climate change is that it is split between geography and science (or across even more subjects if the student is lucky).  This will always result in a fragmented experience unless the school adopts a more holistic approach to dealing with inter-disciplinary topics.  This has been a problem in secondary schools since the 1970s.
Although I have not put any emphasis on it here, what the national curriculum provides for in relation to learning about ecology is also inadequate.
NB, the word other as in "alongside the greenhouse effect and evidence for other anthropogenic causes of climate change" is misplaced as it implies that the greenhouse effect is an anthropocentric cause of climate change.  This is not so.  The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon which makes life on Earth outside equatorial zones possible.  I imagine that whoever wrote the letter for Nick Gibb meant to refer to the enhanced greenhouse effect that has resulted in the problematic global heating that we are experiencing.  Either that, or the DfE doesn't understand the basic science behind climate change.
I do hope that Calum McDougall continues to pursue Mr Gove and the DfE.

"With best wishes

Yours sincerely,


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