View from the Linden Barn 1

March 27, 2013

Cutting Climate Change from the School Curriculum: An Act of Gross Irresponsibility

In February 2007, Alan Johnson, the then Education Secretary in the UK Government, unveiled new plans for the age 11-14 school curriculum, to came into force in September 2008 and making climate change learning a compulsory part of the geography syllabus to be followed by all children in England and Wales. Announcing the plans, Alan Johnson said: ‘It is inconceivable that young people growing up today should not be taught about issues like climate change - it has enormous relevance to their lives. Children not only learn about our future, they shape it’ (1).

Daffodils at the Linden Barn, Winter Solstice, 2012

We were critical of the Johnson announcement in that inclusion in the geography curriculum seemed a quite insufficient curricular response to a multi-facetted climate change threat having environmental, economic, social, ethical and psychological dimensions (2). But systematic (if not systemic) treatment of climate change in one part of the curriculum was better than nothing and there is good testimony that school students have both enjoyed and gained motivational benefit from learning about and discussing what they see as an issue of serious consequence for their present and future lives (3).

Recently released Department of Education consultative guidelines for national curriculum key stages 1 to 3 (ages 5 to 14) are set on removing consideration of climate change from the geography curriculum resigning the issue to the chemistry classroom. References to ‘sustainable development’ have also been axed from the draft curriculum (the current curriculum specifically identifies the interrelationship between climate change and sustainable development as a study topic).

Shifting climate change from geography to chemistry significantly decreases the likelihood that fundamental economic, social, ethical, aspirational and psychological drivers of climate change will be considered in the learning process. The culture of the chemistry classroom will tend to limit curricular treatment to the science and mechanics of climate change, with a likely exclusive focus on presenting cause, i.e. greenhouse gas accumulation, and on exclusively scientific and technological solutions. Deep-seated factors fomenting that accumulation – including a ‘no alternative to economic growth’ paradigm, consumerism, our exploitative relationship with nature, media-induced lifestyle aspirations and expectations – are likely to be put aside, as are alternatives to ‘business as usual’ futures and issues of climate inequality and injustice globally.

The government argument, perhaps eagerly swallowed from the stance of the Royal Geographical Society, appears to be that the ‘building blocks’ of climate science need to be taught before issues of social and sustainability dimensions can be fully understood (4). This flies in the face of excellent climate change learning and teaching happening within elementary, middle and early secondary schools around the world in which the scientific ‘building blocks’ and societal drivers and ramifications of climate change are taught in tandem. It is also fundamentally elitist and undemocratic. By postponing full treatment of climate change and its sustainability implications to geography at GCSE and A level, where it becomes an optional subject, most young people will be denied the opportunity to engage with an issue of crucial significance to their lives. David King, former science adviser to the UK government, is absolutely right when he writes: ‘What you seem to have is major political interference with the geography syllabus. …It would be absurd if the issues around environmental pollution weren’t core to the curriculum. I think we would be abdicating our duty to future generations if we didn’t teach these things in the curriculum’ (5).

Hellebores in Snow, January 2013

The response to the Department of Educations’ proposals has been strongly and commendably critical in tone. We welcome that. We are concerned, though, about the terms of debate that opponents entering the debate have chosen. Opposition, as per David King’s contribution, has tended to be couched in terms of retaining consideration of climate change within the geography and science curriculum (6). We argue that climate change carries such implications for the human and planetary future that it should be a crosscutting issue in the curriculum integrated horizontally across each grade level and vertically through the grade levels. Significantly, where climate change is biting hardest into people’s lives and livelihoods – a number of African countries for instance (7) – climate change allied with disaster risk reduction education has assumed cross-curricular status and significance.

So, let’s have students exploring climate change through human rights and child rights lenses in the social studies class, exploring past environmentally-caused civilizational collapse in the history classroom, redrawing national maps according to different degrees of sea level rise in the geography classroom, examining the ethics of disproportionate impacts of climate change on the developing world in the RE class, extrapolating potential disaster trends using recent statistics in the mathematics class, and, yes, learning of the mechanics of the greenhouse effect and climate volatility in the science class!

- By David Selby

(2) Selby, D. (2007). ‘As the heating happens: Education for Sustainable Development or Education for Sustainable Contraction?’, International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 2(3/4), 255-6.
(3) Lester, S. (2013). ‘Why it’s a mistake to trim climate change from the curriculum’,
(4) Ibid. Jowit, J. (2013). ‘Outcry over cuts to climate change classes’, The Guardian, 18 March, 2.
(5) Jowitt, op.cit.
(6) See, for instance, Lester, op.cit. & Vidal. J., ‘Move to drop debate on climate change in schools faces backlash’, The Guardian,
(7) Madagascar, Malawi, Benin, for example. See: Selby, D. & F. Kagawa. 2012. Disaster Risk Reduction in School Curricula: Case Studies from Thirty Countries, Paris/Geneva, UNESCO/UNCEF, 122, 128, 186.

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