Environment

'Our education system is failing to teach us': Why Nadia Whittome is joining forces with students to push climate education in the national curriculum

There is cross-party support for a Climate Education Bill.

protest sign in Nuremberg that reads 'fight today for a better tomorrow'

There is growing recognition of how we need to support future generations with climate change. (Image: Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

“Climate education needs to be woven like a golden thread through our education system, just like how the climate crisis is woven throughout every aspect of our lives,” says Nadia Whittome, Labour MP for Nottingham East and the sponsor of a bill requiring climate change and sustainability to be integrated into the educational curriculum.

The bill was written by students with support from Teach the Future, and warns that children and young people are unprepared for the climate emergency due to the lack of education on the subject in schools.

An Opinium Research poll conducted in November for the campaign group Students Organising for Sustainability found 76 per cent of UK adults think it’s important to prepare young people for climate change at school. But, teachers and students alike are saying that isn’t happening.

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“Fighting the climate crisis has always been something that I’ve been very passionate about,” Whittome, who became the UK’s youngest MP at 23, tells the Big Issue. “I’m at the upper end of the school strikers generation so when I came to parliament, I felt a particular responsibility to represent my generation as well as my constituents.”

Whittome is hopeful that this will enable climate education in schools “if not in the short term, then definitely in the medium term”.

Scarlett Westbrook is an 18-year-old climate campaigner who led the writing of the bill along with other students, motivated to put the focus on climate education after learning very little about the climate crisis during her own schooling.

She believes significant changes are needed to ensure that people know what problems the world is facing.

“We know we’re going to have to deal with impacts of the climate crisis,” she tells the Big Issue. “But our education system is failing to teach us about them despite the fact they’re going on right now and those impacts are going to continue in the future.”

Teachers agree. Jonny Friend, head of science at a secondary school in Wiltshire, previously told the Big Issue: “Climate change is only really mentioned in the curriculum for geography, an optional subject, and science, and mainly just deals with the facts.”

This in itself is not enough, he said, and he is frustrated that the curriculum doesn’t answer “deeper questions” about climate change or allow “students to explore their thoughts and feelings about it”. 

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The bill is seeking to fix that by educating students on the ongoing climate emergency, as well as terms such as climate justice, sustainability, and net zero. It would also encourage students to care for and protect the natural environment and how to cut emissions and waste.

And it’s part of a growing recognition that the government isn’t doing enough to prepare young people for their futures, both in terms of climate change and wider societal factors such as housing or poverty. 

Wales has a future generations commissioner — the only one in the world — charged with looking at new policies through the lens of their long-term impact and Scotland is intent on doing the same. England and the Westminster government does not, however – a situation the Big Issue’s founder, Lord Bird, is seeking to change with his Future Generations Bill

The bill aims to consider how today’s actions in terms of reaching net-zero or ending homelessness – or indeed a failure to do either – will affect young people and those growing up in the world our current society has left behind. 

The legislation lays out plans to set national wellbeing goals to stop future generations being affected by issues that could be avoided or mitigated, such as climate change.

“The climate crisis is the biggest threat our whole society faces,” Whittome says. “It will impact every aspect of our lives and, in fact, already does – particularly for people in the global south. Even in this country, pollution and dirty air were one of the biggest killers. We should have an education system that reflects the enormity of it.”

Campaigners say 1.4 million students globally took part in the youth climate strikes in 2019. (Image: Callum Shaw/Unsplash)

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Westbrook agrees. “Right now, we can’t make informed decisions about what careers we want because we don’t know what the state of the world is,” she says “We’re also not taught about basic things like how to deal with climate anxiety or to be resilient in this changing world.”  

Both believe climate education is a key part of a just transition, the name given to a fair and thoughtful transformation away from jobs that rely on or produce fossil fuels to green jobs, either in renewable energy or in existing industries that have been decarbonised. But that can’t happen if people don’t know about it.

“We’re not just trying to change that at GCSEs or A Levels but training young people to lead that revolution in terms of decarbonisation across the board,” Westbrook says.

The bill’s second reading is set for March 24, and Whittome is eager to keep fighting for climate education in schools.

It’s a “natural conclusion” for Whittome to be the sponsor, Westbrook says, “not only because she’s got an absolutely brilliant record on climate but because she’s the youngest MP”. 

With growing cross-party support, she’s not alone. There is now a “coalition of young people, both in Westminster and from the grassroots, uniting to fight for climate education”. 

As the world edges ever closer to its targets to rid the world of greenhouse gases, supporters say the bill can’t come too soon.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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