Behind the headlines: climate change and the National Curriculum

Last week saw the closure of the consultation on the Government’s planned changes to the National Curriculum for pupils aged under 14 in England. The newspaper headlines of the last few weeks have highlighted widespread concern; particularly in relation to the teaching of climate change to students in Key Stages one to three.

From student-led petitions, (attracting over 29,000 signatures to date) and grassroots petitions (with over 36,000 signatures), to celebrity spokespeople, critics who have highlighted the lack of climate change content in the proposed new National Curriculum range from Sir David Attenborough and Sir Chris Bonington, to the former Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King, academics and MPs. In response to the outcry, the Department of Education issued a rebuttal press notice, detailing proposed climate content across the new programmes of study.

Why is the National Curriculum important?

The statutory National Curriculum covers all state schools in England and sets out the aims, content and attainment levels for core subjects. The Department for Education plans to replace the current National Curriculum and its accompanying programmes of study from September 2014.

Whilst Academies and free schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum, they do have to teach English, Maths and Science and provide some Religious Education teaching, and they may choose to be guided by the National Curriculum.

In this consultation, the Government sought expert advice on its proposed revisions to the aims and programmes of study and attainment targets for English, Mathematics and Science for Key Stages one to three (ages 5-14). It also published Key Stage four programmes of study for these three subjects; but these are yet to be formally consulted upon.

What is currently covered on climate change?

The current National Curriculum teaches climate change across a number of subjects. Geography at Key Stage three (age 11-14) for example includes “the study of weather and climate, and why they vary from place to place”. It notes that teaching “should include the investigation of climate change”. The attainment targets also reference the links between human activities and environmental change, awareness of sustainable development and environmental consequences of human actions.

The Key Stage three Science programme of study also makes reference to “sustainable development”, “the availability of finite resources”, “energy conservation”, “renewable energy resources” and “environmental pollution”. Attainment targets in the Science curriculum refer to the “the benefits and drawbacks of the use of fossil fuels”“the need to conserve limited energy resources”“the short-term and long-term effects of environmental change on ecosystems”. They also indicate, under the exceptional performance attainment target, that pupils should be able to describe and explain “…a wide range of applications and implications of science…such as addressing problems arising from global climate change”.

The Key Stage three citizenship curriculum meanwhile, makes numerous references to the environment and sustainability, noting that the teaching should provide“opportunities to evaluate individual and collective actions that contribute to sustainable practices”, and that teaching should make links with “work on environment and sustainability in geography and science”.

What mention is there of climate change in the new proposals?

Climate change teaching, as recommended in the programmes of study for Science, Geography and Citizenship, would change extensively under the new proposals. Key knowledge about climate change has been removed as core content from Geography and Citizenship for Key Stages one to three (ages 5-14 inclusive).

Whereas before, climate change featured across Geography, Science and some elements of Citizenship, it is now referenced only in the Key Stage three Science programme of study (specifically in Chemistry). The Geography programme of study mentions weather and climate, but not climate change.

The proposed Science and Geography programmes of study do not explicitly mention sustainability or the societal impacts of climate change.

Neither programme of study refers explicitly to mitigation or adaptation, ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or action required to tackle climate change. The Chemistry programme states that 11-14 year-olds should learn about “the efficacy of recycling”.

In Science, five to seven year olds would learn about the movement of the sun during the day, changes across seasons and the associated weather. From aged seven to 11 they would learn about evaporation and condensation in the water cycle, the concept of gases, and the movement of the Earth, Moon and the Earth’s rotation.

In terms of secondary school teaching in Science, pupils would learn in Chemistry about the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, how it has changed over time, and how carbon dioxide produced by human activity can impact on the climate. No further detail of climate change teaching is given in the proposed Science programmes of study at primary or secondary level.

In Geography, five to seven year-olds would be taught to identify seasonal and daily weather patterns, whilst seven to 11 year-olds would learn to describe key aspects of physical geography, including climate zones. 11-14 year-old pupils would learn the key processes in physical geography relating to weather and climate.

Why are these changes seen as controversial?

There is considerable debate regarding the extent of climate change teaching in the National Curriculum, at which Key Stage(s) it should be taught, and whether it should be taught in Science or Geography, or across disciplines. This is important, as the consultation covers compulsory learning for Key Stages 1 to 3. Some subjects, such as Geography, are not compulsory for Key Stage 4 (aged 14-16). So, should core climate change teaching not be included as compulsory learning in Key Stages 1-3 and instead appear only in optional subjects at Key Stage 4, there is a risk that some students would not acquire essential basic knowledge about climate change. According to the latest Department for Education figures, 26% of pupils at English schools in 2012 studied and sat exams for GCSE Geography for example.

What’s missing from the new programmes of study?

Whilst some building blocks of climate science are included in the Science syllabus, the teaching of societal impacts of unmanaged climate change, alongside ways to reduce and manage the impacts of climate change is missing.

Teaching of climate change impacts should be made explicit in the National Curriculum and go beyond a basic understanding of how the climate system works.

To learn effectively about climate change, students should learn about the physics and chemistry of the climate system as well as the interactions between society and the environment; specifically in terms of the impacts of climate change and ways to manage climate change.

There are of course challenges in effectively teaching a cross-discipline subject such as climate change; clear distinction and clarity of subject content is needed to avoid duplication or the risk of content slipping through the gaps between subjects. So whilst it iws good news that some climate teaching is included in the Science National Curriculum (recognising that some aspects of climate change are best suited to inclusion within the sciences), core knowledge that should be compulsory for all students is still missing in the new guidelines for Key Stages one to three.

Every student, as a citizen, is going to face decisions within their lifetime arising from climate change. Young people should understand their role in creating emissions, and ways to mitigate climate change and to adapt to those impacts of climate change that are now unavoidable. As such, our education system should seek to ensure they are equipped with this core knowledge as part of their compulsory education.