Ministers are facing pressure to overhaul the education system to better prepare pupils for the climate emergency and ensure they have the skills they will need to participate in the green economy

The government has this week faced growing calls to reconfigure the national curriculum to put more focus on the climate and nature crises. A growing number of experts and campaigners contend that changing the curriculum would help to accelerate the net zero transition and slow rates of nature depletion in the UK, arguing that providing citizens’ with a clearer understanding of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss from a young age would drive interest low carbon careers and help plug a net zero skills gap that experts fear could derail UK’s transition to a more sustainable economy.

Despite climate action being one of the UK’s number one domestic and international policy priorities, it barely features in the national curriculum. A poll of roughly 4,700 teachers published this week by the Teach for the Future campaign revealed that two thirds of secondary school teachers say climate change is not taught in a meaningful or relevant way by their subject, despite nine out of 10 reporting that climate was relevant to their subject area.

The survey comes after four 15-year old schoolgirls from Oxfordshire launched a petition calling for the climate crisis to be made central to the curriculum, instead of being relegated to a few mentions in Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 for geography and science. At the time of going to press, the petition has amassed just under 95,000 signatures.

Clearly, there is growing appetite from the public for the government to plug the climate and nature gaps in the curriculum. And this week, a Bill sponsored by a cross-party coalition of MPs that would require climate change and sustainability to be embedded into the primary and secondary school curriculum, as well as into vocational training courses, is set to be debated by MPs.

The Climate Education Bill – which was written by secondary school students and was introduced to Parliament by the UK’s youngest sitting MP, Labour’s Nadia Whitthome – demands that students of all ages are taught about the climate and ecological emergencies, climate justice, nature, and sustainability, as well as “the need to cut carbon emissions to net zero as soon as is practically possible”. It would also require that students are empowered to “care for and protect the natural environment in a way which preserves the environment for present and future generations”.

“Our education system is failing to prepare young people to face the biggest challenge of their lifetimes,” said Whittome. “The Climate Education Bill would ensure that learning about the climate and ecological crises is woven through every subject, for every student in primary and secondary school and those on vocational courses. It would also guarantee that teachers have the time and resources to integrate these issues across the curriculum, which the new data reveals they lack.”

Environmental Audit Committee Chair Philip Dunne and Education Select Committee Chair Robert Halfon are among the Conservatives that have backed the Bill, alongside Green MP Caroline Lucas, the Liberal Democrat’s Layla Morgan, the SNP’s Mhairi Black, Labour’s Darren Jones, Clive Lewis, Zarah Sultana, and Rebecca Long-Bailey, and the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour confirmed this morning that its front bench would be backing the Bill at its second reading, with Shadow Secretary of State for Climate Change Ed Miliband noting it was “essential” that the education system reflected young people’s passion for tackling the climate emergency.

“I am proud to support the Climate Education Bill – a grassroots campaign by students and teachers across the country who are calling for change,” he said. “More focus on climate and nature in our schools and colleges will better equip young people with the knowledge and skills that we need to build a greener, fairer country.”

The private members bill has been introduced in the same week  the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) called on the government to introduce a GCSE in Natural History from September 2024.

The government indicated it was considering introducing the new GSCE last September in a response to an EAC report about biodiversity which contained a number of recommendations for ramping up nature education in schools so as to help inspire “a new generation of ecologists”.

In a letter sent on Thursday to the minister for school standards Robin Walker, EAC chair Dunne recommended the government should now approve plans for a Natural History GSCE so that it is ready for September 2024.

“The UK is facing an alarming nature skills gap, with a shortage of ecologists threatening delivery of the government’s environmental objectives,” Dunne wrote. “A Natural History GCSE is a logical first step, widening access to nature through education and providing a stepping stone to higher qualifications, supporting a clear skills pipeline to address nature skills shortages sustainably over the long term.”

The Department for Education had not responded to BusinessGreen’s request for comment about whether it intended to accept the EAC’s request for a new GCSE or vote in favour of giving climate and education a more central role in the UK’s curriculum.  

It remains to be seen whether either of the latest interventions will prove successful, although significant reforms to the curriculum appear unlikely given the government has to date left campaigners and MPs disappointed by its failure to deliver a bolder green skills strategy. Earlier this month the government formally responded to the EAC’s recent report on the green skills gap by highlighting how the Department for Education launched a draft Climate and Sustainability Strategy at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow last year and confirming that the Department for Work and Pensions is considering how net zero and environmental goals can be incorporated into the design stages of future labour market interventions. But the response was described as “disappointing” and “piecemeal” by Dunne, who reiterated the Committee’s view that “the government’s grand ambitions to deliver two million green jobs lacked policy detail”.

“Government departments lack a central coordination function to deliver green jobs policies,” he added. “The national curriculum is not embedding environmental sustainability nor even restoring the teaching of nature into schools as we had recommended.”

Frustration is clearly growing among politicians and businesses alike at the government’s failure to take a more proactive and long term approach to tackling green skills shortages that could hamper the net zero transition. A clear focus on climate and nature-based education from an early age that could help deliver the next generation of electric vehicle engineers, clean energy engineers, ecologists, and conservationists should be at the heart of any green skills strategy. As such the government would be wise to engage with the cross-party coalition of MPs that have a bill ready to go that could help avert a looming green skills crunch.

Want to find out more about how the net zero transition will impact your business? You can now sign up to attend the virtual Net Zero Finance Summit, which will take place live and interactive on Tuesday 29 March and will be available on demand for delegates after the event.

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