A green strategy for climate education

Reflecting on the Department for Education’s draft strategy for Sustainability and Climate Change, Chris Nash delves into what a Green climate education might look like, urging Greens to make their voices heard in the consultation process.

An image of a school classroom
An image of a school classroom
Chris Nash

Earlier this month, the UK Government proposed a nine-year plan for the management of climate-related issues in the English education system, which it will consult on up until March 2022. However cynical we might feel about the intentions of the current ruling party, I would urge Green groups everywhere to read this document and make a response. At best, a response could shift some of the proposed actions and resource allocations in a Green direction. At worst, the sheer volume of responses, even if ultimately ignored, will demonstrate that there is a Green alternative to the limitations of the Government strategy.

The fact that this document has been published at all is a cause for Green celebration. Its publication is a result not of the sudden eco-enlightenment of the liberal elite, but a consequence of years of pressure from Green grassroots, to ensure the climate issue could not be greenwashed away. In particular, it is a response to the action young people have taken in protesting the lack of urgency shown by global governments. This is clear from the coded language of the opening line – ‘Young people are worried about climate change and want to know more about the impact it is having now’, for which we can read, 'We are worried about the responses of young people to the climate emergency, and want to manage their reactions'.  

History shows us that this is how the English elite has always responded to pressure, ever since young Richard 11 manoeuvred his pony over the newly murdered body of Watt Tyler, the grassroots leader of the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, declaring himself the new leader of the resistance. Within days leaders of the revolt were arrested and the rebellion suppressed. This siren call of assuming false leadership of pressures rising from within society is simply a ‘management technique’. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use our own subterfuge and take up the invitation to give our responses. It does, however, mean we’d be fools if we gave up on all other methods of communicating the dire urgency of the climate emergency. 

I want to engage with the ideas in ‘Action Area 1’ which is titled ‘Climate Education’. I have some claim to expertise in this area – I worked for almost 30 years in the state education system, in secondary schools in what some might call ‘more challenging’ areas of London, but what I saw as communities with a great belief in education and the potential it had to deliver for them. The challenges were the barriers to actual delivery. I’ve seen more than my share of documents like these from the Department for Education (DfE). After a while, you get used to finding the tell-tale phrases and give-away absences within the rhetoric. 

A common theme to strategic plans such as these is to promise ‘training and support’. This document goes so far as to claim that by 2030, ‘England will have the best trained, best-supported teachers in the world’. The ‘Boris bombast’ of that boast immediately makes my sceptical hairs stand on end. The tragedy is that, as a whole, training and support for teachers has a poor track record in the UK. There are a number of reasons for this. One of the worst is ‘innovation fatigue’ – now that we’ve decided as a society that teachers are the answer to every social problem, they have been subjected to merciless amounts of training, but precious little support. Most recently, of course, a lot of this training will have quite rightly been concerned with COVID-19. It’s not just the intensity of the training, but how and when it takes place – usually at the end of a school day or the end of a school term, when teachers are exhausted and at their least receptive to new ideas. 

Another common problem is the ‘learning design’ of these training courses, where an external expert is ‘parachuted’ into the school, with little or no knowledge of the actual school culture. Once they have delivered their ‘scripted’ training programme to a group of ‘strangers’, they are then ‘airlifted’ out, leaving the school team to wrestle with the new initiatives, alongside all of the existing problems.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. There are organic ways of growing the commitment and skills of teachers in delivering new programmes. The principle should be to work alongside teachers, rather than tinkering with them like education robots who need a software update. This is ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’ training, and, surprise, surprise, this is the Green way of developing people, which actually gets results. It just takes longer and costs more than the DfE has budgeted for. 

There needs to be Green pressure around this issue to try to ensure that we have a national team of teachers who feel energised by Green issues, not an exhausted and cynical workforce who feel forced to do lip service to the latest DfE ‘green’ targets. But I believe our shared Green vision can be even more creative with this national training programme. For example, we can ask, who receives the training? We know that one of the key issues in sustainability is community engagement. This training programme could bring whole communities together as organic, learning eco-systems with students, parents, members of the local community and teachers, thinking through key issues in environmental protection and stewardship with an expert facilitator.

Furthermore, and perhaps most critically, we should be asking about the content of this training. The tendency in all programmes of this sort is for a group of experts chosen by the DfE to put together a ‘package’, a standardised script and set of resources, which is then ‘delivered’ in a standardised way across all schools. Of course, this opens the very real question of who is selected. It seems to me there are broadly three positions on the environmental crisis. The conservative view I would characterise as ‘business as usual, capitalism’s doing a pretty good job, this climate change thingy just needs a bit of ‘green growth’ and some ‘green jobs’ and no real change to things as they are’. The liberal view I would characterise as ‘reform’ – it admits the need for some system change but also puts a lot of faith in changing the way people’s individual lifestyles, and the way they think about them. Then there is the Green view, which I would describe as ‘transformative’ – a view that sees this crisis as an opportunity to grow, implementing changes that will increase social justice for all communities, locally and globally, and environmental justice for all species. This, of course, would involve a heck of a lot of change. 

The question, then, is – which of these three possible positions will find their voices represented when the training package is designed? Interestingly the document identifies ‘science, geography and citizenship programmes’ as being the ones that most support knowledge and understanding of climate issues. I would strongly argue that there is a critical absence here – economics! If I was assured that as part of the training programme, every teacher and every student was going to be able to develop an understanding of ‘doughnut economics’ and that its creator, Kate Raworth, had been invited to be on the panel of experts, I’d start to believe in the integrity of the whole process. Who knows, Green pressure could just make this happen! 

This brings me to my final point. As with all of these reformist strategies, there is something they are desperate to wish away – politics. One part of this document forbids teachers from expressing any political preferences in the teaching of environmental issues. This is something we Greens would do well to think through carefully. On the one hand, of course, we cannot allow any form of indoctrination, from whatever brand of politics. This closing down of thinking is the opposite of our Green values. Green education should be the cultivation of critical, enquiring minds. 

There is another dimension to this issue, which is about engaging the trust and thoughtfulness of young people on these issues. You see, if it’s easy for teachers to become ‘initiative weary’, just think how it feels to your average 11-16-year-old at the real receiving end of all of our good intentions. The sincerity of teachers makes an enormous difference. I think back to when I was teaching texts in multi-racial, culturally sensitive classrooms, where political ideas had the potential to cause chaos and disaster. Because students had seen me alongside them, shouting down the BNP who were waiting with threats at the school gate, they trusted me to guide them in thinking through the difficult and undoubtedly political depths of the issue. Politics is about the uses and abuses of power, and unless we’re honest about that with young people, growing the thinking needed to really tackle the climate crisis is impossible, in my opinion.  

Let the discussion begin.