Her reaction was one of dismay, but not surprise. Like millions of other UK students, Westbrook has passed through the British education system with an alarming lack of formal education on the ever-worsening climate crisis – learning everything she knows outside the classroom.
Now approaching the end of her school life, Westbrook has decided to use her experience for the greater good: drawing up the UK’s first ever student-written bill to thread climate change through the entire curriculum.
The Climate Education Bill, written by Westbrook as part of campaign group Teach the Future, will receive its second reading on Friday.
The bill is being brought forward by Nadia Whittome, Britain’s youngest MP, and has garnered strong support from cross-party MPs as well as students and teachers in despair at the failings of the current curriculum.
“Climate change is only really mentioned in the curriculum for geography, an optional subject, and science, and mainly just deals with the facts,” explains Jonny Friend, head of science at a secondary school in Wiltshire.
“I love science with all my heart but if we just look at the facts it’s not enough – you’re not answering deeper questions or allowing students to explore their thoughts and feelings about it more deeply,” he adds.
Friend is far from alone in his frustrations with the system. In a recent survey of over 4,000 British secondary school teachers by Teach the Future, two-thirds (67 per cent) said climate change is not taught in a meaningful and relevant way by their subject.
Very little progress has been made, moreover, with Friend saying the curriculum has “barely changed” since he first began teaching 29 years ago.
It’s a fact Westbrook can testify to, pointing out that it’s still possible, in the 21st century, to pass through school without hearing about climate change in anything more than passing.
Whittome herself can scarcely remember any lessons on climate change at school, pointing to “very brief” coverage of climate in a Year 9 geography lesson.
“At the moment [teaching about] climate change is just optional, which totally ignores the fact that it’s an emergency which will affect all of our lives,” she says.
To current MPs 2050 might “feel distant”, says Whittome, but today’s school starters “won’t even be 35” by the time the half-century rolls around. She fears that neglecting climate education now could have terrible consequences for her own, and future generations:
“The risks can’t be overstated. Future generations are the ones who will be saddled with the crisis, and if our education system isn’t equipped with the knowledge and toll to deal with climate change then the system is failing them.”
The Climate and Education Bill proposes making climate change a “golden thread” to be embedded across all subjects and lessons, whether learning about food security in food technology lessons, eco-anxiety in PSHCE, or reading accounts of climate impacts in English.
At Friend’s school, this method is already being attempted with a review of the curriculum involving input from students and teachers to improve climate education across the board.
Yet the problem as it stands, says Friend, is that comprehensive climate education currently relies on enthusiastic teachers like himself to put in all the work. At other schools “there’s simply nothing being done”, he says.
Knowledge is just one area the bill hopes to address. By equipping students with knowledge of climate change and its solutions, Whittome believes we can begin to address the growing issue of “eco anxiety” among young people.
Better teaching on climate change can also prepare young people for green jobs – of which the government has promised two million by 2030. Careers advice currently “offers nothing for those interested in sustainable careers”, says Westbrook.
Being a 10-minute rule bill, both Westbrook and Whittome are realistic about the prospect of the legislation failing to pass.
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