University of Reading: Bring Climate Change Into Every Classroom, Young People Demand

Climate change should become a regular topic of study throughout the whole school curriculum, attendees at a major summit on UK climate education have said.

Rather than confined to small parts of geography and science, climate change is a reality of young people’s lives that should be discussed in classes for English, maths, PSHE, home economics, art, languages, religious studies, and beyond, a panel of young people and experts concluded.

The online Climate Education Summit, on Wednesday 15 September, was hosted by the University of Reading and partners including the Met Office, Office for Climate Education, Royal Meteorological Society, the EAUC – Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education, and climate solutions charity Ashden.

More than 500 attendees, including leading scientists, education specialists, journalists, activists, policymakers and young people, attended the Summit to discuss how teachers could be better supported to teach climate change and its impacts in the classroom. They put forward ideas for an action plan that will provide practical help for schools and pupils.

The action plan will be finalised in the weeks following the Summit before being shared with attendees and presented at the COP26 event in Glasgow in November.

The Summit featured a message from COP26 President Alok Sharma MP, who welcomed the hosting of the Summit and described education as “a weapon that can change the world” when it comes to climate action.

Serena Bashal, a UNFCCC technology task force youth representative and UK youth delegate to the Pre-COP Milan youth event, said in her keynote plenary presentation that climate change should be treated as a cross-sectional topic in schools.

She said: “Young people of today are the leaders of tomorrow. We are the next generation of CEOs, policymakers and societal leaders. How are the next generation of leaders supposed to adapt their organisations and work on climate solutions without this in-depth knowledge and understanding of the issue at hand?”

Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts, said in his keynote presentation that climate change and nature should feature in all subjects, from History to Computer Science.

He said: “If you’re asking yourself the question ‘how on earth can climate change be relevant to all of those?’, I would just say that all of those subjects will be failing in how they teach in a 21st century context if they do it in a way that doesn’t help the next generation understand and tackle the climate and ecological emergency.”

Other speakers at the event included Baroness Brown of Cambridge, Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change; and Josh Tregale, Mock COP campaign coordinator.

Key talking points and outcomes of the Summit:

Climate anxiety among young people is an issue when teaching and communicating risks, but climate education can provide hope by pointing to solutions. It can counter anxiety by preventing people from feeling powerless, and inspire conversations with their families that start a domino effect of education.
There is a need for support from organisations, schools and research funders in providing resources, funding and time to enable climate change to be integrated into all teaching, rather than being a bolt-on that puts additional pressure on teachers or scientists.
Climate education would give people critical thinking skills that allow them to look at the vast amount of information on climate change, from many sources, and make their own judgement. This is important as the issues become more complicated in future.
Any process of giving young people more access to climate education must be inclusive, giving a voice to poorer communities around the world who are hardest hit by the impacts of climate change, and ensuring all young people get the same teaching and opportunities.

Climate change is currently only mentioned a small number of times on the national curriculum, and is not explicitly mentioned for any subjects except science and geography. Surveys of teachers by climate education campaign group Teach the Future showed that 9 out of 10 teachers agree that climate change should be compulsory in schools, yet only 3 out of 10 feel equipped to teach it.

The Climate Education Summit comprised free, public keynote plenary sessions on gaps in the current education system, and closed roundtable discussions focused on delivering an action plan to bring about a step change in climate education.

The discussions among participants were overseen by University of Reading climate scientists Professor Ed Hawkins – an IPCC lead author and creator of the warming stripes – and Dr Ella Gilbert, as well as ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke and ITV weather presenter Laura Tobin – both Reading graduates.

Professor Robert Van de Noort, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, said:

“It is clear from our discussions at and beyond our Climate Education Summit that young people are demanding education that better reflects the biggest issues of the day.

“We are leaving younger generations with a massive legacy of environmental issues that they will be part of fixing. It is therefore wise that we give young people the best start possible in understanding the issues that they will face, and giving them the required skills to be part of the solution.

“We also know from our discussions with young people, and through our educational research, that engaging openly on big issues can not only empower young people to take control of their futures, but lead to better educational outcomes as well.”