When the government was asked by an MP recently whether it has "made an assessment of the potential merits of introducing a compulsory sustainability component to the national curriculum", the following response was given by the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for School Standards:
– Topics related to sustainability and the environment are covered in the National Curriculum. This National Curriculum is mandatory in all state maintained schools, whilst academies are required to follow a broad and balanced curriculum as exemplified by the National Curriculum. Teachers have the flexibility and freedom to determine how they deliver the content in the way that best meets the needs of their pupils and can choose to cover particular topics in greater depth if they wish.
– Topics related to the climate, the environment and sustainability issues are covered in the science and geography curricula and GCSEs. In both subjects, at Key Stages 1 and 2, pupils are taught about seasons and habitats, as well as covering climate zones and how environments can change. Secondary geography includes study of the climate, how human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environments and the climate. In science at Key Stages 3 and 4, pupils study climate and ecosystems in biology and chemistry, including how human interaction with ecosystems impacts on biodiversity.
– In 2017, the Department introduced a new environmental science A level. This will enable pupils to study topics that will support their understanding of climate change and how it can be tackled. Pupils also cover content on the environment in citizenship education which has been a compulsory subject in maintained schools since 2002. Pupils are taught what improves and harms the environment, and how economic choices affect sustainability.
Those of us well versed in Gibbsean responses will recognise a classic of its kind. Everything in the response was true and it made the by now routine points that [i] the national curriculum already contains much in relation to sustainability and the environment, that teachers [ii] can decide how to deliver the content and [iii] can cover particular topics in greater depth should they wish.
None of this response overly tasked DfE civil servants who could answer inept questions like this in their sleep. It does, however, show the difficulty of asking questions that would give them pause for thought given that they have no intention of changing their minds on this subject.
The experienced MP's question: "Has the secretary of state made an assessment of the potential merits of introducing a compulsory sustainability component to the national curriculum?" was inept because it invited the inevitable Gibb response which boils down to:
"He doesn't need to because it's all in place." There is a "sustainability component." It "is compulsory."
Perhaps those of us interested in such matters should try to come up with better questions; ones that will at least make civil servants do some work – and maybe think about the merits of the issue.