Response to the DfE's draft Climate and Sustainability Strategy

Multiple Authors
December 2, 2021

Read our full response here

On Friday 05 November 2021 Nadhim Zahawi, Secretary of State for Education, announced a draft Climate and Sustainability Strategy for the Department for Education that “puts climate change at the heart of the education”. The draft strategy sets out this vision: “The UK is the world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change by 2030”.

After two years of campaigning and lobbying it is really positive to see that the Department for Education (DfE) is now making some substantive progress on climate education and reducing the carbon footprint of education. The DfE strategy contains several commitments that we have been calling for, including: a new professional teaching qualification; new commitments on vocational skills; a programme to increase connection to nature (the Nature Park); that all new schools will be built to be net zero carbon from 2023. There are also partial commitments to: reskill existing teachers; produce new teaching resources; work with schools on leadership and local coordination.  

In addition to our asks, there are commitments to: a new model science curriculum in Primary that has a focus on connection to nature; make schools resilient to climate change; green the DfE; support the Department for Transport on low carbon transport for schools; green supply chains. There is also a commitment to run a Climate Leaders Award to acknowledge student leadership on climate, which we very much support. We also strongly support the plan to appoint a non-executive director to lead on sustainability in the DfE, as we know this approach has worked well on other agendas.

Despite this, in our view, this draft strategy falls short of what is needed in three key areas from our Teach the Future asks:

1. A commitment to integrating climate and ecology into non-STEM subjects at secondary level and plans for doing this in further or higher education.  

Our first Teach the Future ask is that the DfE sets up an independent review to come up with practical ways for integrating sustainability into subjects, and we think that commitment must be included in the draft strategy. Teach the Future is centred around the need for a broad climate education that is woven through all subject areas in an interdisciplinary way. It is dangerous for young people to think climate change is just the concern of geographers and scientists.  

We note that the Secretary of State committed to integrated climate education in the co-chairs statement at COP26. There are various ways to make this happen, including: new duties in the Education Act (as per Jim Knight’s bill); making awareness of, and engagement in, sustainability and climate change issues the third objective for the National Curriculum; amending some of the content of the national curriculum; working with Ofqual and Ofsted to integrate it into assessment and quality processes.  

It is essential that educators and teachers are involved in proposing workable solutions for how to make this happen, hence our ask for an independent review that will produce recommendations for the DfE.  

2. A commitment to provide funding for the establishment of, and support for, youth voice climate boards in education providers, and the establishment of a Youth Climate Endowment Fund to fund youth-led climate and environmental social action.  

The draft strategy states that the DfE will work with key stakeholder groups, including young people, in implementing the strategy, which we strongly welcome. We would like to see the DfE go further and support the establishment of youth voice climate boards in education providers, especially in secondary and tertiary education, so young people can shape how their institution responds to the climate emergency and ecological crisis, as well as providing a forum through which they can co-create their climate education. Many of the organisations that are best placed to support young people to do this are charities. Such organisations typically require funding to deliver quality multi-year programmes, hence a requirement for funding to make this happen to a high standard across the country.  

Likewise, we welcome the proposed Climate Leaders Award, but we know that funding is a barrier for many young people when taking climate action and running their own climate and sustainability initiatives. As addressing climate change and tackling the ecological crisis are long-term commitments, we think the DfE should look to secure an endowment fund that can be used in perpetuity to financially support young people who want to make a difference and drive local climate and ecological action.  

3. A commitment to retrofitting the c27,000 existing schools to net zero much earlier than 2050, which is the legal minimum.  

The draft strategy is reliant on the Salix / BEIS Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS) for retrofitting grants, but that scheme is not currently well-suited to the requirements of most state schools. Specifically, it only funds c64% of the measures needed, leading to a c£250m shortfall each year. The sooner we can implement these measures, the greater the carbon savings, and the less we will be fuelling global heating. DfE needs to commit to working with BEIS and the Treasury to make the PSDS scheme work for all the education providers that are covered by the scope of the draft strategy. Given the importance of the subliminal curriculum in learning about low-carbon living, the strategy should position education buildings towards the front of the queue for retrofitting, ideally with them all being retrofitted to net zero by 2030, or as soon as possible thereafter. In our view 2050 is not ambitious enough, given that we are in a climate emergency.