Failing the climate test: exam boards and the climate emergency

May 15, 2023

GCSE exams are starting today (good luck to all students sitting exams) but will students studying Geography or Science have to answer any questions on climate change, sustainability or the environment? We think many students won’t have to or there will only be a little bit on the causes of climate change, not preparing us with solutions. Today, we are releasing our most recent research project: Failing the climate test: exam boards and the climate emergency.

Our analysis evaluates the proportion of exam papers in major UK qualifications which include questions regarding climate change, sustainability, and the environmental impact of human actions. It also highlights which subtopics within these are included the most often in exam papers, and which are included less often.

Teachers often prioritise teaching topics which are regularly included in past examination papers, and these papers are also often used as revision resources and for mock assessments. Therefore, the inclusion of climate, environmental and sustainability themed questions in exam papers ensures that this is taught to all students and prioritised within the classroom. 

Our research focused on GCSE Combined Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Geography papers. However, Teach the Future believes that climate education should not be siloed into Geography and Science but should be embedded in every subject across the curriculum, in order for all students to understand the interdisciplinary nature of the climate crisis. Our 'Curriculum for a changing climate' subject reviews have shown how sustainability and climate education can be embedded within the existing English national curriculum for KS3 and KS4.

We analysed both exam papers and markschemes, identifying where questions concerning climate change, sustainability and the environment were present, and, where they were, which particular sub-topics they concerned. 

Our research concluded that inclusion of climate change, sustainability, and human impacts on the environment in GCSE science and geography papers varies in both quantity and breadth of topics across exam boards.

Out of 128 science papers analysed, 81 were found to contain questions or potential answers mentioning climate change, sustainability, or human impact on the environment (63%). Geography papers were significantly better in their conclusion of climate related topics but we found across all papers that questions were mostly problem-centred, focussing on the causes of climate change and somewhat on the impacts, with almost no focus on the solutions to the climate crisis. This does not prepare students for our futures and is increasing levels of eco-anxiety amongst us.

We hope that our research successfully highlights the areas in which climate and sustainability education is promoted and the specific topics which are emphasised and prioritised within climate education. Since the content of our exam papers determines what we learn and prioritise in school, it is crucial that students are tested in a variety of ways on their broad knowledge of climate crisis and sustainability, to equip students with the skills, values and knowledge they need to combat this crisis.

We believe that exam boards hold a responsibility to include a range of climate-change related questions throughout their exam papers. However, we also recognise the role played by the government in improving the inclusion of climate change within the National Curriculum, so that exam boards are further required to improve their inclusion of relevant questions within papers. We hope that the government can see from this research the importance of this.

Therefore, as a result of this research, we’re asking the following things:

  1. Exam boards take on this research and incorporate better climate-related questions into their exam papers
  2. The UK government to implement the Climate Education Bill, which would embed Climate Change throughout the curriculum and therefore lead exam boards to prioritise updating their content

We hope that exam boards and the UK government will take this on board to help ensure all students receive the quality, broad climate education they deserve.

Read our full report at