Should we elect the DfE's curriculum team?

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

The UK government launched its sustainability and climate change strategy in April.  This applies to schools in England.
I've written about this initiative a couple of times already but I'm now writing following a bit of reflection after scrutiny of other responses.
Although it has been welcomed as evidence that the government is actually doing something, the strategy (now a policy) has been widely criticised for its limitations.  In particular, it is clear that what was promised at COP26 has not been realised.  For example, in his joint statement from the Education Ministers summit at COP26, the Secretary of State for Education said:
“We commit to the integration of sustainability and climate change in formal education systems, including as core curriculum components, in guidelines, teacher training, examination standards and at multiple levels through institutions.”
Many hoped that this would mean that sustainability /ecological / climate change content would be incorporated into subjects across the curriculum, putting the climate emergency and ecological crisis at the heart of the education system for all students.  I was not someone who thought that this was possible, given the DfE's implacable opposition to formal curriculum change, and it is no real surprise to me that this has not happened.
Instead, the most significant curriculum innovation we have is an optional examination course for 14 to 16 year olds in natural history which will be introduced in 2025 and first examined in 2027.  This (by definition) is for a (probably small) minority of young people and it's unclear as yet what sort of students these will be, or how the course and exam will be positioned amongst rival sciences and geography programmes all clamouring for attention.  There is also to be a new model primary science curriculum which will focus on nature.  I think that this could be the most significant of the announcements – a sort of Trojan Mouse – but there are as yet no details or timings.

One new objective is to have a sustainability lead to work on climate education in every educational establishment.  One aspect of this role will be the development of a climate action plan to outline the institution's approach to sustainability in relation to both curricular and extra-curricular activity, procurement strategies, adaptation to climate change, decarbonisation etc.  The human resource implications of this are huge, especially in small institutions, but this it seems is to be voluntary role with no new resourcing.  There is clearly an opportunity here for outside organisations to ease this process, but no resources.

There is also a commitment that all new schools will be built to a net zero standard but there is to be no urgency about the retrofitting of the ~27,000 existing schools to the same standard.  And just how good the new ones will be remains to be seen.  I still recall with horror the total horlicks that the building schools for the future programme turned out to be.

The strategy also details the development of a National Education Nature Park that will set out to help children and young people to get more involved in the natural world.   It will aim to increase biodiversity in the grounds of nurseries, schools, and HE institutions through, we are told, installing bird feeders and bug hotels.  I trust that there will be more to it than this.  It seems that teachers are to be provided with free, high-quality climate education resources as part of the Nature Park.

Children and young people will also be able to undertake a new Climate Award in recognition for their work to improve their environment, with an awards ceremony held every year (think John Muir / Duke of Ed).  The DfE says that the Climate Leaders Award will help children and young people develop their skills and knowledge in biodiversity and sustainability and celebrate and recognise their work in developing their skills and knowledge.  Tenders are now being sought for both these programmes.  My great worry is that these will be immediately estranged from the curriculum, and will be seen as unimportant and expendable add-ons.

It is a general criticism from teachers and young people that at present there is much too little support for environmental sustainability across education, but despite these new activities, the new strategy would seem to do little to change this.  Climate change, biodiversity and sustainability are still not part of the core curriculum, central to exam specifications, integral to school inspections, or part of the core framework for teacher training.  Young people say that they want [i] to learn about climate change and the ecological crisis so that [ii] they can play a positive part in working to resolve the problems.  The government has not done enough to make this possible.  The reason for this is clearly that the DfE curriculum team  – what do they do all day? – does not think that [ii] is a proper purpose of the school curriculum.  Instead we have a focus on science and facts about climate, and a shrug of the shoulders about teaching about biodiversity, other than thought optional natural history.  Unless, of course, the model primary science curriculum will come up trumps.
Meanwhile, there is much talk of having to wait for the next government to be in office before any real change can be enacted, and there is constant lobbying of sympathetic MPs.  We shall see, particularly as the next government will have huge problems to face.  I'd also be more confident if there were elections for the DfE curriculum team as well, but that's not how things are done ...

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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