Finding agency in the face of climate change: The case for more integrated and empowering climate education in schools

Posted in: Climate change, Culture and policy, Education, UK politics

Dr Katharine Lee is the author of a recent policy brief, published by the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), that explores how ways to address the climate crisis are currently presented in national curricula across the four UK nations.

Delegates at the Labour party conference, which closes today, are being asked to sign off on the party’s extensive policy programme. Included under the ‘green and digital future’ banner is the proposal to “Integrate learning about climate change and sustainability throughout the curriculum in schools and on vocational courses and provide training and support for teachers”.

This policy proposal adopts content from the climate education bill put forward by Teach the Future, a youth-led organisation who campaign for improved climate change education. The bill – sponsored by Labour MP Nadia Whittome and cross-party colleagues – was presented to parliament in 2021 but did not progress beyond its first reading. That it has made it into Labour’s policy programme will be welcome news to many, as it is widely considered – not least by teachers and students themselves – that education about climate change in the UK is too minimal and that students would be better served by a more integrated approach that does not largely confine climate change content to scientific subjects.

More integration would enable students to learn about broader facets of climate change and widen learning opportunities for all students, especially those who do not choose to study Geography at GCSE level, where a large proportion of the climate change content currently sits. This could help to empower young people – who will be disproportionately affected by the climate crisis – to develop agency to respond to climate change, whether through their future education and career choices, or as consumers, community members, and citizens.

It should be noted that inclusion in the policy programme will not necessarily translate to inclusion in the party’s pre-election manifesto. However, if the commitment to deliver more integrated education on climate change makes it into the manifesto, this would represent an important step toward ensuring a ‘green future’ for all, because an informed and agentic public is vital to the UK meeting its net zero target. A House of Lords report states that around a third of emissions reductions between now and 2035 will involve individuals directly and around another third will involve them indirectly. Recent assessments by the UK Climate Change Committee also suggest that a lack of public engagement is one of the key potential impediments to the UK reaching net zero.

A policy brief published last week by the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) shows that currently, climate change is framed in the UK national curricula as a scientific issue with principally scientific solutions. The overarching message is ‘business as usual’, with technological and supply-side solutions depicted as the key response and minimal or no consideration given to addressing levels of demand. The public are depicted solely as consumers, their wider potential roles are not addressed.

This is problematic as recent research highlights that individuals can be important agents of change, their roles extending well beyond narrow consumer actions and incorporating a wider suite of actions and roles. Individuals do not exist and act as simply consumers, but are also community members, members of the workforce, investors, and citizens, for example. Schoolchildren may have fewer opportunities to assume these roles now, but in short order they will become adults themselves, when the need to respond to the crisis will be even more urgent, so it is important that they are aware of the full range of actions and roles available.

If Labour’s policy proposal on improving climate education translates to making changes to the curricula, then policy makers will need to consider how best to present responding to the climate crisis in an educational setting. A key issue here will be whether governmental guidance on impartiality should be reviewed and updated. Current Department for Education impartiality guidance refers specifically to teaching about solutions to climate change as having the potential to constitute a political issue. This is, it says, because different groups may have politically partisan views about addressing climate change.

Unfortunately, the guidance may be at odds with what young people need: the opportunity to learn about and reflect upon the costs and benefits of all potential responses to climate change – including those outside of a ‘business-as-usual’ framework. In fact, espousing incremental reform as the way forward could arguably be seen as partisan in itself, in that it serves particular political and economic interests. The impartiality guidance may also be unhelpful for teachers, many of whom already lack the confidence to teach about climate change, and who would doubtless welcome the training and support that Labour outline.

For understandable reasons, governments will not wish to advocate through education that protest is an appropriate response to the climate crisis. (Albeit, the Fridays for Future school strikes in the UK may have been fuelled, at least in part, by a dissatisfaction with the current educational offering). However, if Labour are committed to mounting a robust response to the climate crisis, they should consider how much more could be done to empower young people – and contribute to meeting the net zero target – by adopting an integrated approach to climate education that does not shy away from presenting a fuller raft of potential responses to the crisis.

Posted in: Climate change, Culture and policy, Education, UK politics


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