The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Fiona Carnie

How can schools respond to the climate crisis?

If schools don't show themselves to be responding to the climate emergency, many young people will see their education as irrelevant. Fiona Carnie looks at what schools can do to address this crisis.

Fears about the climate crisis are bringing growing numbers of adults and children out on to the streets.

People seem increasingly prepared to risk their jobs, their education and even their liberty in an attempt to protect the planet. The recent Extinction Rebellion protests led to over 1600 arrests in London, whilst the latest youth climate strikes saw millions of students walk out of school in 120 countries.

These figures will continue to rise until businesses are seen to put the planet before profit, and politicians put the environment at the heart of policy.

What about the role of schools?

Across the UK there are over 30,000 schools and more than 10 million school students. Together they have the potential to make a real contribution to addressing this crisis.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, politicians, service providers, employees, businessmen and women and they need to know that they will be as prepared as possible for a future that is unknown; one that many of them are fearful about.

Schools therefore have a key role to play. But it is a big ask.

People seem increasingly prepared to risk their jobs, their education and even their liberty in an attempt to protect the planet

How can we reasonably expect teachers who have been trained to deliver a narrow academic curriculum to have the skills and knowledge to respond to this enormous challenge? What’s more, many school leaders feel that they have insufficient autonomy to mount an adequate educational response to the climate emergency.

But respond they must.

As in all sectors, the scale of the challenge demands an urgent rethink. As far as education is concerned the rethink involves an overhaul of what is taught, how it is taught and the context in which the learning takes place.

1. Revisit your vision and values

Is the wellbeing of people and planet at the heart of what the school is seeking to achieve?

If not, a recalibration that sets up a conversation and brings together the views of teachers, students, parents and locals to create a consensus around what education is for will help the school to respond to the crisis in a way that has the backing of its community.

2. Ensure your policies prioritise working towards a zero-carbon future

Transport, energy, food, uniform and purchasing policies can each on their own make a significant contribution towards reducing carbon emissions and protecting wildlife.

Redrawn in the round, they can affect a transformation in terms of building a positive and meaningful response to this emergency.

3. Ensure the curriculum fosters the skills, knowledge and attitudes to help create a more environmentally sustainable world

Schools need to explore ways to collapse the educational silos that currently define education and show the connections between different subject areas so that learning relates clearly to life beyond the school gates.

By prioritising collaborative project working, thinking critically, being creative and solving problems schools will be better able to equip students with valuable skills for the future.

How can all this be achieved?

Each school could set up a climate crisis committee reporting to the governing body.

Such a group could include students, parents, teachers, school leaders and interested members of the local community. Working together this group could look at these three areas and agree on the actions that need to be taken.

Students need to know that they will be as prepared as possible for a future that is unknown

Given the scale of the challenge it is unreasonable to place the burden of finding an appropriate response on the teaching profession alone.

Instead it will be important to harness the skills and expertise that exist beyond schools, for example within local environmental organisations and businesses, to challenge and support schools and governors to respond appropriately to the crisis.

Bristol is leading the way

Bristol city council has declared a climate emergency and has committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. A new education partnership there has seen all member schools embrace this agenda.

Supported by local environmental bodies students have developed ideas that can be used in schools to help reach this challenging target including:

  • installing smart energy meters
  • installing living walls with vertical gardening
  • reusing waste to produce wildlife habitats. 

Students are being encouraged to make a personal pledge to change their behaviour to reduce consumption and energy use.

Closing words

There is a danger that if schools do not show themselves to be responding to the climate emergency, children and young people will see their education as irrelevant.

On the other hand, if they rise to the challenge, the contribution that 30,000 schools and 10 million students can make is significant.

The Scottish and Welsh governments are already developing their curricula to prioritise the skills that will equip students to create a fairer and more sustainable world. It is time that the Department for Education followed suit.

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