Ensuring sustainability and climate change are whole school priorities

By Christepher Hald posted 25-01-2023 10:14


Chris Hald & Nina Gunson from Sheffield Girls’ School are Visiting Fellows at STEM Learning – and in the latest in an exclusive series of blogs, they’ve turned their attention to strategies for ensuring sustainability and climate change are whole school priorities for all schools.

In April 2022 the Department of Education published its policy paper entitled ‘Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems’. This outlined a plan of action which sought to put green education at the top of the agenda for schools’ curriculum planning, as well as whole school development. This policy paper sits at the centre of the government's 25 Year Environment Plan and sees schools become centres for climate change innovation, striving for net zero, and sets out the role that schools and their pupils play in creating a better environment now and for future generations. The ambition is that, through a knowledge-rich education and practical hands-on experiences, learners become well-informed change-makers who will flourish in our changing world.

Educational leaders will have read this policy paper with much anticipation and interest, and for many, with an element of hope for guidance on how best education can approach these big, global challenges. While the document does set out goals to be achieved by 2030, many of the finer details of curriculum planning, careers education, resource management and buildings development are yet to be established. 

The core curriculum challenge

From the perspective of a school leader, the core curriculum challenge is how to best develop a programme of study targeted in its approach to increasing the knowledge and understanding of all pupils across all ages, in the context of the existing pressures of a packed curriculum and teacher workload, while actually making it relevant and meaningful. For pupils sitting national exams in all Key Stages, the question of where this topic of learning can fit in without having a detrimental impact on exam outcomes is one to ponder. 

From a primary perspective, the integration of sustainability and climate change into the wider curriculum is a sensible approach. A daily diet of literacy and numeracy remains the key focus, however, in many primary curriculum models, Humanities, Arts and Science are often melded into a creative, connected topic which might span a half-term or term. Some school curriculum models could see sustainability and climate change being delivered as a key theme across every year group in the same term, but with age-appropriate delivery and with varied objectives and outcomes. This gives a whole school emphasis and focus on the topic - creating a talking and learning point across the school and a community feel when celebrating final outcomes.

For other schools, their curriculum plans will have specific topics assigned to specific year groups. Through in-depth study, pupils gain deeper knowledge and understanding and become expert voices in their year group.

Regardless of a school’s curriculum model, the emphasis on teaching sustainability and climate change in the primary sector remains the same. Pupils should be informed of the key issues surrounding these topics, and provided with activities which allow them to understand the causes and effects of climate change as well as the solutions - including actions that can mitigate the effects. Core competencies for learning, that go beyond the knowledge and understanding, should be a focus of development; with pupils being critical thinkers, investigators, collaborators and having the confidence to communicate their ideas.    

Curriculum planning

From experience, many of the topics covered when discussing sustainability and climate change fall well within the remit of Science and Technology as well as Geography and PSHE. Therefore, when planning the curriculum in these subject areas, whether as a stand-alone topic or integrated aspect of a creative curriculum, teachers are well equipped to craft the learning objectives so as to incorporate a focus on sustainability and climate change.  Tapping into their own knowledge, interests and understanding, teachers will develop the resources, tasks and activities to deliver the concepts in an engaging and meaningful way. 

An excellent first hand example is a Year 6 topic we’ve created at our school called ‘Creating a Better World’ - which integrates sustainability and climate change into the exploration of several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It looks at wider conservation and geography-related issues, with opportunities for outdoor learning, themed art and music, creative writing, ecological poetry and developing a constructive argument. STEM aspects of this unit include using robotic arms to facilitate cleaning up plastic pollution in waterways, programming micro:bits for early warning systems with storms and floods and investigating the science behind recycling. We’ve also included the development of renewable and biodegradable plastics.   

In secondary education, we already teach young people explicitly about nature and climate change, through subjects such as Chemistry, Biology and Geography, and this allows for the non-biased delivery of key facts about the causes and effects of climate change from a scientific perspective. This is really important. Where the national curriculum perhaps falls short is in providing opportunities for students to connect their learning between subjects, to put their learning into context, and to see the bigger picture implications of their learning.

Future plans

The DfE aims to introduce a new GCSE in Natural History by 2025, which will aim to provide young people with the opportunity to develop a deeper knowledge and understanding of the natural world - but this will be for the few who choose to study it. There are also reports that new T levels in energy and sustainability are being considered by IfATE, and subjects like GCSE and A Level Geology and A Level Environmental Science are already available in the suite of subjects schools can offer. But, they only appeal to those with an existing interest in Earth Sciences and the environment and, as such, are currently niche subjects that schools cannot afford to include in their offer. Instead of focusing on the opportunities for the interested few, we need to build on and improve the education for all.

As educators we have a responsibility to teach young people about global issues of this significance in a holistic way, enabling them to understand the complexities of these topics and providing them with opportunities for critical thinking and problem solving. While students may learn about fossil fuels in Chemistry, and links are made to climate change, this is currently covered in a way that is quite dry and negative (no offence to Chemistry teachers) with no real emphasis on solutions. If we want our students to leave school equipped with not just key knowledge but also the skills, desires and belief that we can do better, we need to change this approach.

Resources for the delivery of these topics in Science and Geography could make greater reference to recent research and developments in engineering to look more practically at the solutions to climate change, as well as an understanding of the causes. There is also lots of scope for external speakers and links to future careers – such as through STEM Ambassadors. However, if we are to meet the government’s aim of a ‘world class education’ on this theme, we need to look beyond the teachers of Science and Geography. There are so many opportunities to develop a broader understanding of this topic and a genuine appreciation of sustainability across other subjects, often with the chance to make more relevant links to real life applications. For example, choosing materials in Design Technology, considering the energy used in food storage and transportation in Food and Nutrition, gaining an understanding of resource allocation in Economics and handling climate change data in Mathematics.

The way forward

It’s only by making climate change and sustainability a whole school priority and providing CPD for teachers across all curriculum areas to build their own understanding and confidence, that we will be able to effectively provide our students with the broad and balanced knowledge on this subject and inspire them to choose career paths that will help to ensure a sustainable future.

Many organisations have been quick to develop resources linked to sustainability and climate change, either for free or as part of a paid package. Often these resources relate to national curriculum topics, and address climate change or sustainability integrated into a theme that can be explored through the lens of the Humanities, Arts and/or Science. They also include literacy and numeracy related tasks. These resources vary in content, length, age-group and format. Some have specific messaging behind them such as the WWF and British Council resources, or Together For Our Planet which focus on the outcomes of COP26.

STEM Learning also offers free climate change resources, ready made for primary and secondary teachers. Most, if not all, do not require the teacher to be an expert in Climate Science. Instead, the resources are accompanied by notes and provide engaging visuals and practical activities. For teachers who want to know more about Climate Change and Sustainability, the STEM Learning CPD package has a variety of courses available. 

This may be a new challenge for schools and colleges, but it feels like the right challenge. The green economy, green industrial sector and green careers are going to be areas of significant growth in the future and it is important that the education sector recognises this. It is, therefore, reassuring that DfE plans are addressing such important global issues, in line with wider government priorities, and setting out a framework to equip young people with a comprehensive education on a topic of vital importance which will allow them to play an impactful role in the future. Working together, sharing ideas and resources and with the support of organisations like STEM Learning, schools will meet this challenge and ensure young people have the knowledge and skills to be the agents of change we need them to be.

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