Look up! Wake up! Stand up for your rights!

A youth who is worried by the future too often. Atleliers Populaires 1968

The only war that matters is the war against the imagination/ all other wars are subsumed in it. Diane Di Prima

A sense among young people of being silenced in the face of impending disaster is even more relevant today than it was in the late 1960s.

A survey for Teach the Future by Bath University asked 10,000 young people across the world in 2021 for their views and feelings about the future in the context of the climate crisis.

76% were afraid of the future.

54% thought that humanity is doomed.

39% were actively considering not having children.

That is a tidal wave of anxiety that will come out in all sorts of pathological forms if it is denied or silenced, but generated positive action from 2018 on; with the wave of school strikes that built up to millions taking part across the world by September 2019. This generated a supportive movement among parents, teachers and other educators, to change the curriculum as an agent of change for our whole society; anticipating the shifts we will need for a sustainable society, so that we are actively making them.

This is driven by the reality of climate breakdown.

As I am writing this, the Storm Eunice is howling outside and the rain splattering on my window after a week of storms. A world that felt mostly safe for most of my life no longer does. Switch on the laptop and climate crisis impacts are all over it. They are hitting the Global South hardest, but are coming home to roost in the Global North too. No one is going to stop it by building a wall.

The mobilisations in response are the human fuel for change.

A government serious about making a transition to sustainability would learn from it, work with it and use it to galvanise more people to act on the scale and with the urgency we need, with schools acting as community hubs. Actually implement Article 12 of the Paris Agreement, which mandates governments to educate their whole people to understand the scale of the crisis and the measures needed to overcome it.

Instead – alongside the most minimal steps forward in the DFE Net Zero Strategy – we have new guidance on “Political impartiality in schools”. which is designed to keep this movement within safe bounds for the government.

The headlines that heralded this announcement all screamed that this itself is anything but politically impartial, with student movements protests on climate, Palestine and racism; critical views of the British Empire or figures like Churchill specifically mentioned as “woke” issues – or “left wing brain washing” – that would be suppressed by it. This is an attempt to speak power to truth.

The actual guidance is far more subtle than a Daily Express headline is capable of and plays on the fact that teachers are – in general – far more fair minded and conscientious and far less partisan than, say, a government Minister. The law on this matter is quite specific and limited. “Partisan” views are those which support one political Party over another, or put forward one solution to the exclusion of all others. The guidance has some quite unexceptional points that just about every teacher would use in any case, that if stating a personal view, identifying it as such and saying that other views are available, or, if there is a genuinely contested argument, pointing out sources of differing interpretation. A similarly mature approach might be welcome in some of our newspapers. Debating an issue of concern to students, or organising clubs to pursue it, is not, in itself “partisan”. However, the liberal use of the word throughout the guidance creates the impression that it might be; with the intention of inhibiting both teachers and students from exploring the issues involved without feeling there is someone looking over their shoulder waiting to dob them in to the DFE thought police. As there very rarely is, this is an attempt to set such an inhibition in people’s heads. We shouldn’t let it in.

Presenting issues in a “balanced” way is less of an issue than whether an issue is being presented truthfully. The problem comes when the presentation of awkward facts for those in power gets interpreted as partisan and ruled out of order. This is the US Alt Right playbook to control narratives expressed in the accents of the British civil service. Much of the framing of the discussion on History in the press suffers precisely from this sort of cherry picking. Attempts to look at the history of the British Empire from the point of view of the colonised as well as the coloniser, for example, lead to really jumpy reactions from people who would like that perspective to remain suppressed; whether that is in the classroom or the National Trust. This is not because people are unaware that the elegant stately homes they love were built with the proceeds of slavery, but that they’d really prefer not to be reminded of it. Its because they know that this is a fact that they find it so disturbing; and so resort to disavowal. Look straight at something, and pretend its not there. There’s only so much reality one can take, after all. The “war on woke” is designed to sustain existing unbalanced views and hagiographies in a way that turns History into a series of self serving myths, and any questioning of them into heresies. None of us should be intimidated into ceasing to question or challenge.

There is an attempt running all the way through the guidance to inhibit the expression of any view that might be interpreted as partisan, as well as a staggering lack of self awareness of the partisan views of the government itself – which this guidance acts to disguise.

On climate in particular, a little humility would not go amiss from a governing Party that

  • abstained on the Parliamentary motion to declare a climate emergency,
  • still contains the organising cadre of climate denial and delay in the form of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group,
  • has for the most part come very late to any recognition of the scale of this crisis,
  • has a default to backslide, and a Net Zero Plan with targets that its own Parliamentary watchdog says it will undershoot by 80%.

These are awkward facts. Not contestable because they are on the public record. Would it be “partisan” to point them out? What would the “balance” be? It is the weakness of government responses to the scale and enormity of the crisis that has fueled the student protest movements and strikes.

The relatively tepid language of the guidance acts as the soft cop to the hard cop role of the tabloids, which are primed to go after examples of “woke” teaching in the same way they did in the 1980s when some schools tried to teach that it was ok to have two Dads or two Mums, which led to exactly the same sort of accusations of indoctrination – teaching kids to be gay – “its political correctness gone mad” etc etc etc with hues and cries at school gates from parents frightened their kids were being “turned gay”; allowing the Conservative government to introduce Section 28 and ban teaching that gay families were ok. They don’t talk about that much anymore, but they do have a pretty consistent record of being on the wrong side of history.

Let us consider Scenario A – dealing with climate breakdown – in the new DFE guidance on “political impartiality in schools” in the context of their overall edict that “You can discuss political issues with pupils, and their interest and engagement in these should be encouraged. However, you should not promote partisan political views to them, or encourage them to participate in specific political activity, including protests”.

The paradox of this position is that it is a truth universally acknowledged that the cure for an otherwise disabling level of anxiety is to take action against the causes of it. Depression and despair sets in where such action is blocked. The driver of the fear in the survey is that most young people feel that their governments are failing to tackle the problem on the scale and at the speed needed to resolve it. it is the gap between the knowledge of the crisis and the paltry scale of the actions being taken to deal with it that causes despondency.

In Scenario A the government acknowledges that there is no justified argument against the reality of climate breakdown, the reasons for it and the disastrous consequences of failing to deal with it, neatly disowning a noisy faction of its own back benches, as follows.

Teaching about climate change and the scientific facts and evidence behind this, would not constitute teaching about a political issue. Schools do not need to present misinformation, such as unsubstantiated claims that anthropogenic climate change is not occurring, to provide balance here.

So, there is no requirement to cover the sort of nonsense put out by the Global Warming Foundation to provide “balance”.

However, where teaching covers the potential solutions for tackling climate change, this may constitute a political issue. Different groups, including political parties and campaign groups, may have partisan political views on the best way to address climate change.

This part of the topic should be taught in a balanced manner, with teachers not promoting any of the partisan political views covered to pupils.

In other words. Its ok – in fact its desirable – to have a debate. Partisan views can be expressed in a lesson, so long as there is more than one of them. Not only that, but its also ok for teachers to express a personal view, as long as it is clearly identified as such, and its made clear that other views are available.

Its in the area of potential solutions, that go beyond technical matters to how we organise society and deal with issues of justice and fairness in the transition we have to make, that open debate is essential. The government’s model of education tends to emphasise the transmission of “knowledge” – an old fashioned passing down of truths from authority figures – and they tend to interpret debate in the same way as manipulation by authority figures. What they seem to have missed is that so much of the debate, with “partisan views” fiercely expressed, has been led by students who have felt let down by the absence of content, absence of urgency and absence of organisation and mobilisation in schools and communities. In so far as any progress is being made at all, including by the DFE, it is down to them. It is no job of a responsible teacher to try to shut them up.

The whole point about trying to forge a just transition is that we are making it up as we go along, no one has all the answers and to find them we have to let a hundred flowers blossom and a thousand schools of thought contend; so we can (all) look up, wake up and create our own future.

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.