Are we making progress?
If you wanted to take a glass half-full view of how young people are being prepared for the challenges of climate change and the ecological crisis, I think you might make these points:
The Greta Thunberg-inspired, monthly student Friday strikes organised by some of the same students involved in Teach the Future. These occur up and down the country, are well attended, and are an international phenomenon. They get very good publicity.
Teach the Future’s media strategy and skills are excellent.
Students are protesting about what they see as the lack of effective government action and the lack of appropriate education within schools. These are both new and very welcome developments.
The students are campaigning in relation to climate change and also the ecological crisis. It’s really important that these continue to be linked because they are linked in the everyday world, with each being crucial in its own right.
Some schools are doing a really good job.
Some schools are listening effectively to their students.
There is support from organisations across the education and environment sectors.
Two large teacher unions (NEU and UCU) are on-side.
Some examination courses are helpful in focusing attention on these key issues. The academy sector wants their schools to do more, as does the association representing school governors. Teach the Future has 6 reasonable asks and is campaigning effectively (think about its recent parliamentary reception and its slick media campaign). The main ask is for a government-commissioned review into how the whole of the English formal education system is preparing students for the climate emergency and ecological crisis. This is long overdue. There is talk of a joint Education / Environment House of Commons Select Committee inquiry; DfE hates these because they raise awkward questions in an authoritative and hard to ignore manner.
Government tends to play a straight bat at all of this saying that the national curriculum does cover climate and climate change and ecological issues. Up to a point, this is the case. Teach the Future is helping students counter what the DfE says. It acknowledges that schools do teach about these issues, (as NAEE and other reports have shown) but points out that the curriculum coverage is inadequate and inequitable, and not focused on key issues such as what we are going to do about the issues we face.
DfE will have to do something. It’s in a bit of a bind as it cannot be seen to completely ignore young people (who are being rational and reasonable), and yet it doesn’t really believe in what they are saying and asking for. DfE thinks students need to stay in school, study hard, get qualifications, and then play their adult part in the transition to a low-carbon future. It’s been saying something like this for the best part of 50 years, and the record wore thin years ago.
Of course, there’s also a glass-half-empty view as well. If I’d written about that I’d have said that it’s only really a small minority of students who are actively involved, that only a smattering of schools are doing a good job, that most exam courses are useless, and that the support for Teach the Future from other organisations is patchy, fragmented and uncoordinated. So where are we? Well, there is a sense that the world has caught up with what activist educators have been talking about for over 50 years; ie, serious damage has been done (and is still being done on a daily basis) by how we are living on the planet. What’s really new are the scale and the depth of the issues we face, and the student action. The Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals are a helpful background to what is being requested, even though progress with these is also halting. It is sobering to compare how we (and the world) are facing up to the climate and ecological issues we clearly now need to address, with how we’re dealing with the coronavirus. Doing this with the over-heated frog in mind is instructive. In terms of the climate, we’re the frog in the water which has been getting hotter and hotter. Despite all the feedback it’s been getting, it has got used to the rising temperature and still finds little reason for urgent activity. In terms of COVID-19, however, we’re the frog that’s been plunged into water that it knows instantly is far too hot for it and is now trying to leap out using whatever means it can. The social disruption and economic inactivity we face because of the virus are unprecedented, and a month ago were largely unthinkable. Will we be faced with equally unpalatable policy options at some point in the future to deal with the over-heated climate, or will we start to take the feedback seriously? I’m not all that optimistic. I am, however, pleased to have lived long enough to see all this student activity, enthusiasm and motivation, and look forward to its renewal and its success once we’ve seen off the virus. It’s such a pity that it’s now so necessary. Are you taking notes, DfE? .......................................... Bill Scott is emeritus professor of education at the University of Bath. He blogs about these issues at: blogs.bath.ac.uk/edswahs