All Section, Education & Culture

Climate change: Schools failing us, say pupils

Published : 25 Feb 2020 05:28 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 06:01 PM

Joe, 17, says schools need to put the environment at the heart of education.

Ministers agree "it is vital that pupils are taught about climate change" but Joe says schools are failing to prepare them for a climate emergency.

He is a founder member of Teach the Future which next week takes its call for an environmental overhaul of education to Parliament.

"It's people with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge who are becoming fossil-fuel chief executives and they are the ones who are causing the most destruction to our world," says Joe.

"And therefore that kind of shows that education is not succeeding and that our education is broken because education should be creating better people not worse."

On Wednesday, Joe, a pupil at Devizes School, and more than a dozen other under-18s who make up the core of Teach the Future, will take over Parliament's Terrace Pavilion to host a crowdfunded reception for MPs.

The group, run jointly by the UK Student Climate Network, best known for the school climate strikes, and the National Union of Students' climate charity offshoot, SOS-UK, is launching a draft English emergency education bill which embodies their key demands and which Joe believes "is going to be really big".

Teach the Future is hoping the draft could at some stage form the basis of a private member's bill but for now, the aim is "to get MPs on our side".

The idea is based on the 1958 US National Defense Education Act which aimed to kickstart engineering, maths and science education and give America the edge in the space and arms races.

It paid off - by July 1969, the average age in Apollo mission control was just 28.

"I think it really shows that education can be used to solve a difficult problem, if the focus is down from the government," says Joe, who will sit A-levels in history, biology and chemistry this summer.

But rather than focusing exclusively on science, technology, engineering and maths - the range of the climate emergency education act needs to be far wider, he believes.

"The space race was just one thing but the climate crisis affects every single part of everything and it requires solutions from every single part of society, whether it be arts, whether it be maths, whether it be sciences."

He wants everyone to understand the impact of their behaviour on the environment and "try to do things in a way that has as little negative impact as you can".

And while engineers have an important role, fundamentally, education needs to become more sustainable, he says.

People need to understand how the climate crisis happened, he argues: "It's a symptom of a general unsustainable system."

Joe believes most people his age "want to understand more about climate change and what's behind it, the issues of justice... and the politics behind it".

But he says that while schools are largely sympathetic, they are constrained by limited budgets and the demands of a high-stakes exam system - and often teachers themselves lack detailed knowledge about climate change.

"It's not good enough that sustainability is restricted to a few subjects and most of our teachers and lecturers don't know enough about it," say the campaigners.

They also point out that including climate change in the national curriculum will only affect local authority schools - not academies, free schools or the private sector.

The group has invited dozens of MPs to the reception and are "particularly hoping government ministers and people close to the government will be there".

Zero-carbon schools

Teach the Future's wish-list also includes having climate science and sustainability included in teacher training and all education buildings to have a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030.

The group was founded in autumn 2019 but already has support from leading education unions and environmental organisations. It is hoping that several dozen MPs will attend the reception. In a statement, the government said: "It is vital that pupils are taught about climate change, which is why topics are included across the national curriculum for both primary and secondary schools. Teachers have the freedom to expand on these areas if they wish.

"This government is a world leader in tackling climate change and we are the first major economy to legislate for net-zero emissions by 2050. The Department for Education provides funding to support schools to become more sustainable institutions."

A spokesperson said topics related to climate change and sustainability were included in the national curriculum for science and geography, a new environmental science A-level was introduced in 2017 and sustainability will be included in some new T-level technical qualifications, for example, construction students will learn about renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies.

The Department for Education also supports energy efficiency through its capital funding programmes, including interest-free loans, the spokesperson added.

Judith Burns is the Education reporter of BBC