On leaving full time teaching in 2015 to start Green Schools Project, my aim was to help young people to play a role in the transition to a sustainable society. I had been teaching in schools for 12 years, and for some of those had worked to support students to lead projects that reduce energy usage, increase recycling, grow vegetables and encourage walking to school. I thought that to have the biggest impact I should try to help as many schools as possible to do the same.
I knew that climate change was the greatest threat facing us and wanted to play my small part in tackling it, but imagined that World leaders would step up, take the decisions required and that young people in schools could get involved with the transition. The Paris Climate Agreement at the end of 2015 felt like the moment that this had belatedly started to happen.
At the start of 2020 we find ourselves in an altogether different position. While Australia burns and Indonesia floods, world leaders are still procrastinating and prevaricating, ignoring what is scientifically necessary in favour of short term political gain. Young people, however, have taken a different path. Led by Greta Thunberg, the school strike movement has seen children and teenagers around the world make their voices heard on an issue upon which their futures depend.
In this context we have to recognise that our education system is failing them and that they are fully justified in striking from school. It is unfit for purpose when it is possible to leave school, with climate change being mentioned in as little as 10 out of 10,000 lessons. Even geography and science, subjects that should facilitate in depth exploration of the climate crisis, have limited space for it when there is so much other content for students to cover in order to pass out of date exams that are fixated on to the exclusion of everything else. Students, if they do their research outside the classroom, can see through this and are angry that what they see in real life is not being reflected in what they learn at school.
The system is effective at preparing young people to pass exams, but leaves them unprepared for life. Accountability measures have driven a narrowing of the curriculum, Ofsted inspections have created a weary and stressed workforce of teachers increasingly disillusioned by requirements to teach to the test rather than to inspire.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Schools need to re-evaluate what is important to learn and how it should be learned. The climate and ecological crisis will be the defining issue of this century and young people deserve to understand it and play a part in addressing it. Nature and the natural world have been left on the side lines in our technology-based, consumption-driven society. We need to reconnect with the idea of nature being our greatest teacher and with what is required to sustain life on our shared planet.
If we are to have institutions that prepare young people for life we need to recognise that it doesn’t happen in boxes with labels on them such as ‘maths’ and ‘geography’. More project-based cross-curricular learning should take place and creativity needs to be encouraged through greater support for the arts. We need to encourage values that promote compassion and care for others, help young people to cope with the pressures of social media and empower them to resist the lures of marketing and advertising that promise happiness if they buy a certain product or act in a particular way. Importantly, every child’s abilities should be recognised and celebrated rather than just those who are good at remembering stuff and doing tests.
This is why Green Schools Project support Teach the Future. It calls for the inclusion of the climate and ecological crisis in teaching standards, a Climate Emergency Education Act, and funding for schools and young people to enable these changes. It calls for teachers to teach about the crisis in buildings that are net-zero carbon or on the way to that target. Our education system has the potential to be a driver of change, and the centre of every local community’s efforts to reduce their carbon emissions.
Young people are crying out for adults and leaders to step up to this existential challenge, it’s time that we give them an education system that stops being part of the problem and begins to be part of the solution.