Climate in the classroom

1st August 2023


Sian Toop asks whether primary school children are missing out on the discussion surrounding climate change

Presently, the National Curriculum for primary schools does not include mandatory teaching on the impacts of climate change, with the topic only being referenced at Key Stage 3.

As a result, children in primary schools across the UK are missing out on learning about the consequences of the climate crisis. This has left many young people stating that they feel worried or ill-equipped in dealing with the issue, or how to deal with climate anxiety.

In 2021, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi claimed that the government intended to put “climate change at the heart of education” as part of the COP26 Educators’ Commitment to Climate Action. Further assurances included supporting teachers to deliver climate-related education and providing the necessary teaching resources. Research in 2021 from Teach the Future found that 70% of teachers felt they had not received adequate training to educate children about environmental issues. Furthermore, promises were made that a model primary science curriculum would be implemented, hoping to introduce climate change as a concept to children in a coherent way. However, there is still no evidence of when this might come into effect.

Pupils are currently introduced to aspects of the topic through ‘core concepts’ in subjects such as science and geography. They complete work on topics such as exploring different climates, manufactured versus natural environments and various animal habitats. However, while the young students may have some awareness of the impact of climate change, they are still excluded from much-needed learning surrounding the issue.

Equipping learners

With more young people experiencing climate anxiety, it is important that children of all ages receive compulsory education on the subject, granting them transparency of the topic and the opportunity to ask questions or partake in discussions. This learning would equip children with the knowledge and solutions to live more sustainably and understand their potential in helping to reduce further climate impacts.

However, without the necessary changes to the National Curriculum, or the resources that were promised in 2021, staff in primary education are having to do what they can to educate children on the environment and sustainability.

Luckily, there are a number of organisations and charities willing to step in to provide the materials and information to ensure primary schools are able to teach their students from an early age. STEM Learning offers various tools for schools to teach topics such as the greenhouse effect, green power and sustainability. It also has a selection of resources on green careers aimed at primary school pupils, allowing them to understand the different roles available through fun and interactive learning. For example, writing an application to become a polar explorer.

WWF-UK provides a downloadable presentation on climate change, posters and live lessons that classrooms can join virtually to learn about the impact of human activity on the environment. Great Big Green Week, which took place in June this year, is titled the ‘UK’s biggest ever celebration of community action to tackle climate change and protect nature’. In partnership with educational publishing house Twinkl, the week saw primary schools across the country further their learning of climate change and protecting the environment through activities including litter picking, growing their own food and discussing ideas on how to reduce their carbon footprint.

So, while schools across the UK are doing their best, it is evident that until the subject is adopted as compulsory learning, children in primary schools are just scratching the surface of the sustainability discussion.

Sian Toop is a freelance journalist

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