DFE’s Section 28 moment on climate?

The reporting of the Department for Education’s draft strategy for sustainability and climate change flagged up an attempt to gag teachers and repress student protest in a way that gave the impression that that’s what the Department was briefing when it released the document. This impression is reinforced by Nadim Zahawi’s speech in Glasgow in which he threatened fines for students who took part in actions. At a time when 72% of young people in the UK are afraid of the future and 39% considering not having children in response, this shows a characteristic failure to grasp the magnitude of the crisis.

The limited new proposals in the DFE document are considered below, but the extent to which putting the toothpaste of student protest and teacher awareness back into the tube of normal school functioning is foregrounded, indicates that the government is less concerned with resolving the crisis than putting anyone pointing out the inadequacy of their response back in their box. With fines and disciplinary action if need be. With this approach, confronted with a new Greta Thunberg, we appear to be being advised to try to discourage her (and to fine her parents).

This indicates that they know that the measures they are planning are inadequate, that the crisis will intensify; and because that will generate anxiety and protest, they propose to limit debate and quash any action. In so far as progress is being made on this issue it is a result of thousands of students and teachers expressing their “personal views”, while government ministers have stalled and obstructed for years.

In a similar way, in 1988, the Conservative government reacted to schools teaching that some children had two Dads, or two Mums, or some just one, that this was ok and all should be treated with respect, with legislation (Section28) that made it illegal to do so. As social attitudes have moved on despite this, and Section 28 is long gone, they don’t want to talk about that now, but their reflex to try to chill debate on issues that make them uncomfortable or defensive is evident here.

As the transition is partly about the values of society, it is impossible to make it without debate on why we have our priorities so wrong that they will kill us if we don’t change them. As we will be going through a very rapid transition, we will need the widest and most open discussion about how we do it – including in schools.  Let a hundred flowers blossom. There should be no freeze or threat to debate from on high. 

Their argument that “Teaching about climate change, and the scientific facts and evidence behind this, does not constitute teaching about a political issue and schools do not need to present misinformation or unsubstantiated claims to provide balance,” implicitly damns the views of a significant number of their own MPs – who peddle “misinformation” and “unsubstantiated views” in pursuit of climate denial

Their warning that “political issues and partisan political views, for example on social and economic reform” should be handled in line with existing legal duties on political impartiality in the classroom requires that this issue is approached in a way that denies controversy and is likely to chill it. For example, it is a fact that fossil fuel companies have known about the greenhouse gas for decades and have spent most of that time funding climate change deniers in defence of their profits. This is a fact. I wonder if former petroleum executive Nadim Zarhawi would consider it “unbalanced” to point it out.

While the science of climate change is clear and undeniable, even though all too many of the government’s own MPs continue to deny it, how we deal with it is a matter of live controversy that requires the widest possible debate in which people should – in some circumstances – be free to explore, even think aloud. Its not as if anyone has all the answers already. What are they afraid of?

I think this quote from Graham Frost, National Association of Head Teachers national executive member and head of Robert Ferguson Primary School in Carlisle sums it up (my emphasis)

“Education is almost universally considered the means by which we build for a better future, so we simply have to equip children with the knowledge they need to challenge politicians and business leaders to act urgently on climate change.

“School leaders cannot ignore the growing pupil voice on climate change, and children cannot articulately challenge the powers-that-be without being educated. I have seen young people speak truth to power. I have also witnessed their despair with elected officials who think personal changes such as using a different soap or recycling plastic is sufficient response to looming environmental catastrophe. Equipped with scientific knowledge, our pupils can see that system-wide technological, political, sociological and economic changes on at a local and global level are urgently and desperately needed.”

What follows is slightly edited a list of the new commitments in the DFE’s document, originally published in Schools Week, My comments in italics are towards a response to the consultation that will take place between now and April. This consultation will be “selective”. It remains to be seen who they will select to consult.

The Department for Education says it is aiming to become the “world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change by 2030”and that it will develop “clear measurable” objectives and publish milestones and targets for 2025-30..

The concern here with being “world leading” mistakes status for achievement. Its not a matter of where we are in relation to the rest of the world, but whether what we are doing is going to be enough to save is from disaster. At present the UK is 42 out of 73 in Education International’s league table of climate education achievement. Getting up that list from mid table mediocrity is going to need some qualitative thinking and action.

Climate education policies

By 2022

1. Review subject-specific training to ensure all teachers are “equipped to deliver a knowledge-rich curriculum and improve climate education”.

Given that the emphasis throughout the draft strategy is on climate education only in STEM subjects, Geography and Citizenship it is crucial to establish that this will review ALL subjects; as the social challenge of dealing with climate breakdown affects everyone in all aspects of life and therefore has the be addressed and understood by everyone. The overall problem here is looking at climate breakdown as an issue that can be siloed and/or added to an otherwise unchanged curriculum. This runs in parallel with their approach to skills – which is all about generating a green sector of the economy – seen as something distinct and separate from the rest of it – not about having to rethink and retool the whole of society. There is no recognition that, as the Anthropocene is so called because human impact on the planet is apparent in its GEOLOGY (if there are geologists in the future they will be able to identify it by a thin but dominant layer of soot, plastic, concrete and chicken bones) dealing with it is an overarching question for the whole of society and therefore the whole of education. So, it’s not a matter of adding supplementary items, but rethinking the whole process. The same applies to training. It should not be a bolt on for those interested, it should be integrated into the core of everything we do.

2. Develop a primary science model curriculum focusing on nature and the recognition of species, including those native to the UK. This will ensure all children “understand the world around them”.

This is so limited! Its not just about Science. The potential for thematic learning in Primary is enormous and should be grasped , e.g. the grasp of the world in “If the World were a Village” would give a deeper understanding and pose philosophical issues to be explored in a way that is open to possibility. Just on Science, how far does this suggestion differ from the existing curriculum, which includes exactly these points? Identifying a species is not the same as understanding it, let alone the world. This retains a hangover of the Michael Gove approach: “37 lists to learn before breakfast” – or too often, instead of breakfast. The “model curriculum they envisage for primary will be “voluntary”, so, not that important then.

3. Science CPD for teachers will include climate change and sustainability.

Again Science CPD. And the rest of us?

4. Explore with schools the “best way to identify champions” to provide leadership on climate change activity.

This one is easy. A combination of an SMT member or lead teacher with a TLR and the convenor of a student Green team/Eco Club/Climate Committee along with a dedicated governor.

5. Share examples of “effective, evidence-based climate education” from all education settings so schools can “consider how best to adapt to their own settings”.

We are already doing this ourselves and there’s loads of it out there. The question isn’t having lots of available material, or even whether it is officially approved of or not, its how central it is to the day to day concerns of the school. Add ons tend to drop off.

Overall, this does not make the grade. There is so far no overarching curriculum review, nor commitment to train all teachers in all subjects, nor a commitment to restore sustainability as a pillar of the curriculum, which they could have easily done by giving time to Jim Knight’s Private Members Bill that would do just that.

By 2023

6. Provide free, “high-quality” curriculum resources so all teachers can “confidently choose those that will support the teaching of sustainability and climate change”. Will be delivered through “clearly signposted and approved platforms”.

Having an approved list is probably a way to try to control the limits of what can be said.

7. A virtual “National Education Nature Park” will allow pupils to better understand biodiversity and develop analytical skills. Youngsters are encouraged to do things like install bird feeders and then upload progress and compare against other schools in the virtual park. DfE says this will increase the number of youngsters becoming data scientists and biologists “needed for nature’s recovery” by 2030.

And greening schools grounds, outdoor learning, forest schools, growing vegetables providing real – not virtual – hands on learning – especially in urban areas is crucial. Does care for other species get a look in here; and what that means for care for ourselves and each other? Feeding the birds should be primarily about feeding the birds, not the collection of data. Perhaps that’s a clash of values?

8. Provide framework for the Climate Leaders Award, a Duke of Edinburgh-style scheme.

The point is for everyone to be engaged for intrinsic reasons and in collective ways which is part of a transformative process for the school and the community it serves, not the extrinsic motivation of getting a medal from someone with a title.

9. Encourage partnerships to support children learn more about the environment, for example universities linking with schools to share green spaces and climate expertise.

And environmental NGOs and campaigns.

By 2025

10. “Review, refine and build on” the activity within the National Education Nature Park and Climate Leaders Award.

By 2025, we should have a fully reviewed curriculum and fully reviewed teacher education and CPD programme for all subjects and year groups – and an outreach programme for community and adult education firmly in place. Keeping the central challenge for humanity siloed in a limited number of subjects, and having a national digital Nature Table and a system for giving out gongs to a few keen students doesn’t hack it.

Education estate policies

By 2023

11. All new school buildings delivered by DfE – not already contracted – will be net zero in operation.

Any existing contracts should be reviewed and designs modified to avoid more expensive retrofitting later on. It beggars belief that we are constructing any new buildings that are not zero emissions.

12. Test new “energy pods” in schools to provide innovation and replace coal and oil burner heating systems.

Let’s hope these work well. But if they don’t work? What’s plan B?

13. Provide feasibility studies for schools with end-of-life boilers to switch to new low-carbon heating systems, funded through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s decarbonisation fund.

The funding should be available for every school in this situation not simply to carry out a feasibility study, but to do whatever is feasible to reduce or eliminate its carbon footprint.

14. Start evaluation of UK’s first “biophilic” primary school, including long-term research on effects of green infrastructure on pupil wellbeing.

“Long term”. How long do they thing we’ve got? There is already a lot of evidence that greener environments are good for people, even on the level of plants in classrooms. Every school should be greener. We need an action plan for that now.

15. “Support” schools to transition to low-carbon technologies like electric vehicle chargers.

Having EV charging points could facilitate a switch from a petrol/diesel vehicle but this begs some questions in relation to 16, in that this could be seen as encouraging the use of personal vehicles. A lot of schools in urban fringe areas have had to turn large parts of their playgrounds into car parks so teachers can commute in. That poses questions about the affordability of housing too.

16. Increase active travel to school via schemes such as Bikeability, Walk to School Outreach and School Streets.

17. Develop “locally-tailored presentations” on flood risk and resilience in schools in partnership with the Environment Agency and the Geographical Association.

Schools Week reports that over 10,000 schools already have a significant flood risk and this will rise to 15,000 by 2050as a resuklt of climate breakdown; so this is an example of the sorts of things we have to do if we are failing to solve the problem at source.

18. Trial delivery of smart meters in schools to reduce energy bills.

If these are known to reduce energy bills, and use, we need a national plan to install them in every school, with training for the appropriate people in their effective use.

By 2025

19. Evaluate the best value for money approaches for retrofitting education buildings. Develop standards for retrofit and repair to “empower the education estate to make change”.

So, by half way to 2030, we will have worked out what’s the cheapest way to do it and may well have formulated “standards” that match what the building companies think they can deliver without incurring extra costs for themselves, with enough loopholes built in to enable them to cut corners in the usual way. There are examples all over the world of this being done properly that we could learn from. We need to have clear standards by the end of the year and a budget to allow the work to start; including an element for training up the additional workers we will need for an expanded retrofit programme. New York State aims to have all its school buildings carbon neutral by 2035. We need a similar commitment, an earlier end point of 2030 and the investment to match. The capital budget for this should be routed through local authorities, which should also have the same role for domestic retrofit, to take advantage of economies of scale. Redirecting funding from the perverse decision to put £27 billion into building new roads would cover it and also cut carbon emissions in construction and transport at the same time.

20. Help schools create “Climate Action Plans” to increase “sustainability literacy” and inform government on rollout of “nature-based solutions” to stop flooding, provide solar energy and improve air quality”.

All schools should have climate action plans, and these need to be made within a framework of a national plan for greening school grounds, insulating school buildings, supplying renewable energy (generated on site wherever feasible) with the locally administered investment that is needed to make them a reality. This won’t happen from the bottom up, because there is no money at the bottom.

21. “Encourage” all schools to sign up to flood warnings and have emergency plans in place.

Given the growing flood risks, all schools identified as being at risk should automatically be signed up for flood warnings and training given in emergency procedures as part of Health and Safety requirements.

Within a similar approach to this, the government has failed twice with domestic retrofitting. Time to learn from experience.

Operation and supply chain policies

By 2023

22. Collect data on food waste in schools and share best practice to improve it.

23. Develop “sustainability and climate change analytical capability” in DfE.

24. “Consider ways” to make the period products scheme greener.

By 2025

25. DfE and all its arms-length bodies will mandate that suppliers bidding for £5million-plus contracts commit to achieving Net Zero by 2050. They must also publish a “Carbon Reduction Plan” showing how they will meet the target.

This should apply to all suppliers.

26. Review school food standards to “consider the impact of food emissions on the environment”. Will also look at whether more flexibility can be offered for schools to “support local sustainability and provide more plant based and meat free options”.

This should be brought forward. Schools should be mandated to introduce more vegetarian and vegan options and meat free days involving a community education drive and cooking skills classes.

27. “Engage” with schools to “embed sustainability in buying and ensure ‘green’ frameworks are available to support sustainable purchasing”.

As with 25, these should be mandatory.

Green skills and careers policies

By 2025

28. Include career opportunity guidance for pupils in relation to technologies used as part of the net zero building programme.

This is very narrowly defined. Crucial that this should also encourage girls and other underrepresented groups to take up this sort of work.


29. Improve take-up of STEM subjects “ensuring that anyone, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to pursue a rewarding career” in a STEM occupation.

This is a technical view of transition to sustainability that is part of the government’s obtuse inability to recognise the value of Arts and Humanities (in life in general let alone imagining and organising a green future).

Who will oversee what?

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi will be the department’s “climate change minister”. He will directly oversee the Climate Leaders Award.

Schools minister Robin Walker will take on climate education, while academies minister Baroness Barran oversees the biodiversity of the education estate and net zero building targets.

DfE will also identify a non-executive director to lead on climate change.

This makes the lead Minister responsible for the least important – possibly superfluous -initiative. You can have all the award ceremonies you like, but if we leave our schools uninsulated and the curriculum unreviewed we will not be doing what’s necessary. But, at least we know where the buck stops for these things.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step” Chinese proverb that had became a bit of a cliche by 1973. The key point is to see any steps proposed in the context of the journey, to be able to quantify how far forward they take us and how fast – given that we have to be in a sprint to get to the end in time. We can’t afford to see these initial toddles as either the end point or having sufficient momentum to go the full 1000 miles by 2050. We are long past the point at which options should be being “considered or “explored” (possibly in the hope that it will all be too much of a faff to do anything about once the heat’s off). This is out for consultation and has “Draft, not government policy” written all over it – so the question is, after COP, will they be pushed beyond what’s in it, or relapse to an even weaker position? The education unions and others need to engage and keep the heat on them to press for the former and – above all – never concede that half measures are good enough.

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