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'Their voices can’t be ignored any longer': MPs to debate student's Climate Education Bill

A new survey reveals two-thirds of teachers believe climate change is not taught adequately in schools - as the student-written Climate Education Bill heads for its second reading in parliament.

Student Scarlett Westbrook (L) and Britain's youngest MP, Nadia Whittome (R)

Student Scarlett Westbrook (L) and Britain's youngest MP, Nadia Whittome, are bringing forward a bill to embed climate change across the entire UK curriculum. Image: David Parry/PA Wire

In Summer 2020, 17-year-old climate activist Scarlett Westbrook opened her GCSE geography exam to a question asking her to list the benefits of climate change. 

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. 

While she welcomed the government’s post-COP26 announcement on improving climate education in schools, Whittome says the plans don’t go far enough to address the scale of change needed. 

“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.

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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. 

What they are optimistic about, however, is the fact that this issue isn’t going away.

“We’ve had massive cross-party support which has been amazing, and almost everyone we’ve spoken to about [the bill] has been hugely positive,” says Westbrook.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Whittome, who asserts that the government “simply can’t drag their heels on this”.

“The call is coming from schoolchildren themselves, from parliamentarians across the house and from teaching unions.

“Their voices can’t be ignored any longer”.

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