Education for Sustainability is a priority work-stream of Sustainable Hackney and our ambition is to see the borough become a beacon for EfS. So when the Head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, this week dismissed out of hand the opportunity to make schools’ curricula responsive to the existential threat of climate change and the ecological crisis; it was not a response we were pleased to hear. (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/amanda-spielman-launches-ofs...)
The student-led organization, Teach the Future, puts the need for education about climate change very succinctly. ‘Current and future generations of students are going to grow up in a world greatly affected by climate change. We deserve to be taught about this so that we can understand the impacts we will face. We must be equipped with the skills to live sustainably so that we can limit the progression of climate breakdown as much as possible.’ With perhaps such students in mind Spielman wrote, ‘And increasingly we see efforts to commandeer schools and the curriculum in support of worthy social issues and campaigns. In the last year, many of these calls have been about environmental causes and against racism’. But, why shouldn’t the recipients of education be able to affect the crafting and shaping of their education? The use of the word ‘commandeer’ sounds like an alarmist response to this suggestion and ‘worthy causes’ has a patronising ring. Many students are acutely aware of how climate change and racism is impacting on their lives as was evidenced by the actions of XR, the climate strikes organised by the UKSCN, the UK Student Climate Network and the support of Black Lives Matter.
Spielman is a policy maker of some importance so it’s greatly disappointing that she has totally failed to absorb the strident message to policy makers in the 2018 IPCC report which says ‘The decisions we make today are critical in ensuring a safe and sustainable world for everyone, both now and in the future.’ That ‘now’ was two years ago and in that short time despite the ‘tiny blip’ in the build-up green-house gasses due to COVID, described by the UN’s WMO (World Meteorological Organisation) has been trounced by a steep rise in emissions since the Paris climate summit. “We breached the global [annual] threshold of 400ppm in 2015 and, just four years later, we have crossed 410ppm. Such a rate of increase has never been seen in the history of our records.” (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/nov/23/climate-crisis-...)
Spielman is a policy maker who just doesn’t get it. She’s oblivious of the countless messages hammered home by the UN. The position was made clear at the 2015 Cop 21 Paris climate summit and reiterated last year at COP 25 in Madrid that “Climate change should be included in all school curricula and should play a central role in updated Nationally Determined Contributions.” Her dismissive failure to see that the climate crisis demands a sharp re-alignment of education reveals she is not considering the current and future students she is supposed to serve. She states that, ‘Climate change activists have called for new qualifications or more explicit alterations to the curriculum. They sometimes forget the importance of grounding climate change within the wider body of learning about science and about geography. And they don’t always notice how much schools already do in this space.’ No one would disagree that climate change needs to be grounded in science but the existing framework and narrow fixation on exams means that usually only the few students that elect to study science or geography are they likely to learn about climate change an then only through a restricted scientific prism that ignores its relationship to wider society.
Teach the Future’s research shows only 4% of students feel they have an understanding of climate change and 70% of teachers feel adequate to teach it. Sure, it should be grounded in science but don’t the social sciences too need a look-in? What about the UK’s historic responsibility for climate change? Britain was the nation first to industrialise embracing coal as the most efficient means of labour exploitation; this created great immense wealth but also foul and unhealthy living and working conditions; this development was based on capital very largely derived from the slave trade and this in turn accelerated imperial expansion. Britain then transitioned to oil, toppling leaders like Iran’s Mossadeq in 1953 that threatened its oil interests and left a legacy of a where a plundered and poorer global south was disproportionately affected by global heating. History and the social sciences reveal the relationship of climate change to the past and the inequalities of the present. But why cannot every subject be slightly re-fashioned to make education relevant to the climate crisis and assist us understand our interconnectedness to the environment?
Educational policy can and should be repurposed for the reality of the climate and ecological crisis but in order to marshal it for this challenge, we should not shy away either from adopting a broad, holistic, multi-disciplinary approach or from letting OFSTED stand in our way. With Britain hosting the 2021 COP in Glasgow, we should be not only seen to be signed up to Education for Sustainability but leading the way.
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