COP26: We must create climate-literate students

Written by: Kevin Courtney | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It is vital that every student leaves education climate-literate, equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to tackle climate change. Kevin Courtney introduces some new resources to help schools and urges the DfE to make this a priority ahead of COP26

Recent extreme weather events will surely have convinced at least some of the climate change deniers still out there that the crisis is upon us.

The climate crisis is undoubtedly the most significant threat confronting our planet, and it is young people who stand to lose the most if we fail to address it.

As educators we have a major role to play in helping to address this threat, enabling children to understand the climate emergency and ecological crisis and think critically about how they can play their part as we seek to move to a more sustainable world and a better future for them.

This is about what we teach and how we teach it as well as the buildings we work and learn in (which account for approximately one per cent of all energy consumption in the UK) and how we travel to school (one in 70 car miles is associated with the school commute).

So given that education is central to the climate crisis, the National Education Union recognises its role at the forefront of helping to facilitate a response.

In November, COP26 – a global United Nations summit about climate change and how countries are planning to tackle it – will be taking place in Glasgow.

One of the NEU’s key concerns is the need for quality climate education. This is not about tinkering at the edges of a narrow curriculum. It is essential that we have a curriculum that reflects the world in which we live and the urgent priorities facing the planet.

We are urging the government to recognise that the climate crisis is an emergency, requiring commensurate measures and a holistic solution. This means not just confining the study of climate change to science and geography or hiving off the subject into a climate studies GCSE that only some students will take, but instead through a curriculum review, full implementation of Article 12 of the Paris Agreement, which states (inter alia) that governments “shall co-operate in taking measures as appropriate to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information”.

It is vital that every student leaves education climate-literate, equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to tackle climate change, adapt to uncertainties, and take part in building a more sustainable future. For this to happen, teachers and support staff require training and support to provide quality climate change education.

The government currently seems opposed to making any fundamental changes to the curriculum to reflect the climate emergency. We hope this will change.

A DfE Sustainability and Climate Change Unit has recently been established – a positive development although long overdue. Consultation with the education trade unions is taking place. We welcome this, including the decision to launch a draft strategy at COP26.

However, it is disappointing that by COP26 the focus will only be on the launch of a draft strategy and, as far as we are aware, there is unlikely to be any confirmation of funding until after COP.

The UK government must commit to properly resource climate change education, as well as all the other changes that are needed to help deliver Net Zero – and do so as a matter of priority.

So, until this happens, we remain sceptical of genuine commitment on the part of the DfE and wider government.

As a positive step to support education staff, the NEU, alongside the University and College Union, National Union of Students, and the student campaign groups SOS-UK and Teach the Future, are promoting a Climate Learning Month during October and November 2021 in the run-up to COP26.

The aim is to support educators to integrate activities and themes related to understanding the climate and ecological crisis into this particular month. A set of downloadable climate and sustainability teaching resources and CPD courses have been developed. We hope that these will inspire both educators and young people to bring about the changes needed for a more sustainable future.

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