UK pupils failed by schools’ teaching of climate crisis, experts say

Britain’s children are being failed by schools when it comes to learning about the climate crisis, with the subject often wholly missing from the curriculum, sidelined, or mistaught, students and education experts have said.

A private member’s bill that would require basic knowledge of climate issues to be taught in the national curriculum receives its second reading in parliament on Friday with cross-party support. But it is unlikely to make it to the statute books, despite promises at Cop26 last November that ministers would prioritise climate education in schools.

Nadia Whittome, the Labour MP who brought forward the bill, said: “The education system should be helping young people to get informed on the impacts of climate change – it’s their lives that will be affected. It’s also part of how we will reach net zero – give young people the tools to be part of the solution.”

Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, pledged at Cop26 to “put climate change at the heart of education”. A draft strategy is due to be published in April. The Guardian has reported that an early version told teachers not to advise pupils to get involved in climate protests.

However, students and experts said the UK was failing to equip young people with the skills they will need to understand and cope with the climate emergency.

A survey of 4,680 teachers in England found that two-thirds of secondary school teachers felt climate change was not taught in a meaningful way within their subject, even though nine out of 10 said the climate was relevant to their subject area. Four in 10 teachers said they would like more time and capacity to devote to climate issues, as well as more cross-subject collaboration.

Students have described their frustration at the lack of opportunities and resources to discuss the climate crisis in class. Scarlett Westbrook, 17, from Birmingham, who helped to write the climate education bill, faced a question on her geography GCSE paper in 2020 requiring her to list benefits from climate change. She complied, to get the marks, but also wrote that any benefits were vastly outweighed by the damage – a note that was criticised by the exam marker.

“I was shocked to be asked that. To have to write that to get marks was a really weird dilemma – should I spite the education system or spike my exams?” she said. “I think there has been influence from lobby groups, and that’s why the education on this subject is so bad.”

Phoebe Hanson, a second-year politics student at Lancaster University, said young people had a right to expect the education system to inform them about and equip them to understand the crisis. “We are growing up in this world where the climate is changing. The immensity of that is terrifying. But in our education system, this subject is just tacked on the side. We are letting people down,” she said.

Matt Carmichael, an English teacher in Leeds, said teachers felt under pressure to be cautious about discussing the climate crisis. “I educated myself on the issue, but I know colleagues who lack the confidence and know this as a controversial subject that they don’t feel equipped to teach,” he said. “It’s vital that we do teach it as there is lots of misinformation out there, especially on social media, and lots of anxiety among young people.”

Education is a devolved issue, and the survey, by the Teach the Future campaign, applied only to England. However, Teach the Future covers all four UK nations, and it said schoolchildren were poorly served on climate education across the UK.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Topics related to climate change already feature across the curriculum at primary and secondary school. By 2023, all teachers in all phases and subjects will have access to high-quality curriculum resources, so they can confidently choose those that will support the teaching of sustainability and climate change.

“Our new sustainability and climate change strategy will help empower all teachers to deliver education on climate change. From aiding the development of climate interests in early childhood right through to the skills needed for green careers. It also goes beyond the classroom – children and young people will get hands-on experience of understanding, nurturing and protecting the biodiversity around them through our new national education nature park and climate leaders awards.”

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