The DfE Draft Strategy on Climate Change & Sustainability Education: A Head’s Up & A Head Start

A quick 6-minute overview of my thoughts recorded for January’s Geography TeachMeet. But for more depth, read on below!

Many say that COP26 ended last November with not much to cheer about. But it did give us educators plenty food for thought. Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi gave encouraging sentiments regarding the Department for Education’s (DfE) plans to improve climate change and sustainability education in England. A draft strategy has been published and here I will offer a brief overview with some light analysis and what schools can do to get a head-start.

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The context

The draft strategy has been born out of recommendations from two independent sources, the Climate Change Committee and The Dasgupta Review, and also the ‘Green Jobs Taskforce’. On page 5 draft strategy, the context is given by referencing four components:

  1. The Paris Climate Agreement: The Agreement makes explicit mention of enhancing ‘climate change education’ in article 12 of its text, and therefore is a bridge between robust climate science and action from the education sector.
  2. Net-Zero by 2050: The UK is a signatory to both the Paris Agreement and the IPCC reports, and has subsequently set this legally binding target.
  3. UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development: Linked to the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with the aim of ensuring learners of all ages can find solutions for the challenges of today and the future, such as climate change, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, poverty and inequality.
  4. The UK ‘Environment Bill’:  Laid out in 2020 and in a period of consultation. It sets targets for reducing water & air pollution, reduce waste and increase resource productivity, and improve and restore habitats and ecosystems.

More contextual detail is given on pages 6-7 of the draft strategy, with a recognition of the power and privilege that educators can have. The term ‘enthusiasm of youth’ is used and working with young people myself I feel this could be taken as an acknowledgement that the passionate voice of young people has been heard thanks to their activism.

As a signatory both the Paris Agreement and the IPCC reports, the UK Government has set a target of achieving ‘Net Zero’ emissions by the year 2050. Net Zero is when the greenhouse gases we emit into the atmosphere are balanced out by their removal out of the atmosphere. It is not same as ‘zero emissions’ where we emit no greenhouse gasses at all. The pathway taken to net-zero is exceptionally important. If we do very little to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and then drop them significantly as we approach 2050, then that could emit three-times more carbon than making significant reductions immediately.
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Aims and principles

The overall vision is for the UK’s to become a ‘world-leader’ in climate change and sustainability education. This is to be achieved with four strategic aims through three guiding principles, summarised on page 8 of the draft strategy. Let’s look at the aims through the lens of each of these guiding principles.

The phrase ‘across the sectors’ is mentioned twice in ‘Partnership and Collaboration’. As mentioned earlier, the roll out and increase in the provision of practical, vocational, and industry-led education in the form of T-Levels and Apprenticeships is already under way. Schools are required to work in partnership with employers, careers advisers and higher education institutions to ensure effective careers provision. So, this links in with the drive towards ‘green skills and jobs’. While some new jobs focusing mainly on climate change adaptation and work towards net-zero are coming online, many more will have an element of considering sustainability and environmental impact.

For ‘Evidence and Insight’, research and evidence-based practice is something that us educators are familiar with. Careers education is already measured by the likes of the Gatsby Benchmarks, progress measures towards a net-zero school or community can be made through financial and energy audits, building resilience through reviewing and reforming curriculums, and increasing access to nature as a way of improving to protective factors of student mental health, which can be measured in safeguarding reviews.

In ‘Leadership and Support’ it is clearly stated that the DfE will take on more of a supporting and logistical role. “Facilitating autonomy and encouraging innovation” is fairly vague at the moment, but we can look to existing structures to perhaps get a sense, such as the Office for Students’ Uni Connect Programme which has the aim to ensure that every student, whatever their background, “has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.” Regardless, the infrastructure, expertise and connections are already in place within the many elements of the education sector to take the lead themselves in meeting the four aims.

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The route to achieving the aims

On page 9 of the draft strategy is a figure which provides a diagrammatic ‘Theory of Change’ overview of the route that could be taken to achieve the four aims.

The route to achieving the vision of a world-leading education in climate change and sustainability, found on page 9 of the draft strategy

Presenting the route in a linear fashion from ‘actions’ to ‘outcomes and impacts’ allows for an evaluative approach, where key performance indicators and success criteria can be drawn up. Skipping ahead in the draft strategy to page 23 ‘Data’, it is mentioned that by 2022, the DfE will ‘develop clear measurable objectives to allow us to baseline and track progress towards our strategic aims.’ And will publish milestones and targets for 2025-2030 and beyond. But how will these ‘measurable objectives’ be tracked? Will be a part of OFSTED? Will it be left to self-assessment and judgement much like progress against the Gatsby Benchmarks? Will they need to be submitted to some overseeing authority? Who will be ultimately responsible if an establishment is found to be not making significant progress towards any of the aims?

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Let’s start by looking at the Climate Education action area. In its timeline it is stated on page 13 that by 2023 “teachers in all phases and subjects can confidently choose those that will support the teaching of sustainability and climate change”, with regards to curriculum resources. This is an indication that the teaching of climate change and sustainability issues should not be siloed into just Science, Geography and Citizenship. On page 12, it states that the science of climate change is considered apolitical – effectively acknowledging that the debate whether anthropogenic climate change is happening, is over. This is an exceptionally welcome message given that not too long ago, it was required to give a disclaimer before showing climate change documentaries in the classroom such as Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” for ‘balance’. However, the second message reiterates that teachers should remain apolitical with regards to ‘social and economic reforms’ which are needed for robust climate action. I foresee this being quite a challenge for educators, as academic research and scientific evidence into what needs to be done in order to address climate change and sustainability issues can be, in many cases, just as robust as the science regarding the changing climate itself.

Some members of the #geographyteacher community on Twitter had a very interesting discussion on this stance, especially given that this is proposed guidence for England. I suggest you have a quick dive into that chat.

By 2030, it is hoped that newly-built buildings used by educational institutions such as schools themselves become learning resources to facilitate learning about sustainability and net-zero. (NB: I just asked the mini-geographer, who is in Year 3, whether their school has been using the fact that they have solar panels on the main building’s roof… they said nope! Might have to fix that, somehow…!)

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For the ‘Green Skills & Careers’ action area, pages 15 to 16 mentions green energy production, sustainable engineering, housing retrofit, nuclear energy and vehicle electrification, and lists the sectors of Agriculture, Building and Construction, Engineering, Environmental Conservation, Horticulture and Forestry, and Science. This seems to be wide in scope, but consider sectors not mentioned which would link to these. Accountancy and finance to budget and invest in these sectors. Law, litigation, and auditing services to ensure codes are being followed, targets met etc.

So, while a ‘green job’ can provoke a stereotypical job such as installing solar panels or constructing zero-carbon buildings, we know there are many industries and job roles that support such activities. Apprenticeships could be a key driver, and that pathway into work or higher education is going to get a lot more attention and promotion over the next few months and years. T-Levels, a new Level 3 qualification (the equivalent of A-Levels), have begun piloting in some schools and colleges. They involve placements in industry and the draft strategy hints that many courses will include aspects of sustainability.

The draft strategy outlines the involvement of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and their Green Apprenticeships Advisory Panel. I was fortunate to speak to Anna West, Deputy Director for Apprenticeship Approvals and Funding at the Institute, for a podcast episode about apprenticeships in the ‘green sector’ recorded in April 2021. Do spare the time to have a listen.


But what about the Arts? I could not find anything in the draft strategy alluding to related sectors. The Arts are a vehicle for translating and communicating thoughts, ideas and processes. They also help fuel the imagination (we’ve all heard the saying ‘life imitating art‘), which can be a catalyst for driving STEM-based ideas forward.

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The Education Estate action area works towards the aims of net-zero and resilience to climate change. When I look at this part of Figure 1, I notice that the top track of building new schools to be net-zero, more schools transitioning to net-zero as ‘climate change mitigation’, and the bottom track being clearly ‘climate change adaptation’. Learning about flood risk will not just be for the geography classroom as there will be a push for ‘locally tailored’ learning developed by a partnership between the Environment Agency and the GA (work on that collaboration is already underway). By 2025, there will be ‘encouragement’ and support for education settings to put in place ‘Climate Action Plans’ for both mitigation strategies such as solar energy and improving air quality, but also adaptation strategies such as reducing flood risk and having emergency plans in place for extreme weather events – I’m envisaging something like what we already have for fire drills, lockdowns or ‘snow day’ closures.

In the longer term, by 2030, there is a desire to increase users of school buildings to nature by minimising barriers. There is little hint about what this may mean, but with the evaluation of the UK’s first ‘Biophilic’ primary school set to start by 2023, perhaps that will set a precedence or standard. Could we be teaching in hobbit-hole style classrooms from 2030?!

Khoo-Teck-Puat-Hospital-designcurial
The Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Yishun, Singapore – an example of ‘biophilic’ building (Image source: Design Curial – Biophilic design and architecture – 10 of the best biophilic buildingS)
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The activity and the outcome given for the Operations and supply chains action area read like it may have very little to do with young people themselves, focusing on decision making, purchasing and operations. However, the related impact is that young people understand the importance of decision making. Almost all schools and education settings have platforms for pupil voice for example a school council or a student union. Therefore, there is an opportunity here for schools to engage their young people as empowered stakeholders that work in partnership with school senior leadership. Products used by the school are to be ‘greener’ not just in material or source, but also how they are transported. By 2025 school food standards are to consider food emissions, locally sourced produce and reduce meat consumption.

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The last action area is the one that has been taking most of the news headlines – where the nicknamed “Duke of Edinburgh for Climate Change” is found. In fact there are two schemes proposed, the National Education Nature Park and the Climate Leaders Award, scheduled for launch in the academic year of 2022-23. Both these are to provide practical opportunities for young people to get directly involved in improving the natural environment. What these two initiatives may look like is summarised on page 10 of the draft stategy. During COP26, the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, announced these initiatives (skip to 6:30).

While the National Education Nature Park sounds like it will be a real-time geo-spatial database of projects and success stories from pupils and schools, which can be used to share and celebrate ideas, the Climate Leaders Award will provide a structured route through the likes of the ‘John Muir Award’ or ‘Duke of Edinburgh’s Award’. If, as proposed by the draft strategy, this award becomes as prestigious those, then further and higher education institutions and employers will need to recognise them as worth-while achievements. Indeed, if other parts of the strategy are followed through, particularly in the Green Skills & Careers action area, then businesses will have a reason to pay attention to applicants with a Climate Leaders Award on their CV. However, I have spoken to a number of young people who are skeptical about this award, since many schools already engage with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award or John Muir Award and they are so ubiquitous that they may not offer much of an edge when it comes to future prospects. But for expidition leaders, there is already a way to stay ‘one step ahead’ by emphasising elements of the existing awards that focus on nature. Next time you have your Award meeting with pupils, perhaps start having discussions how climate change, environmental protection and reconnecting with nature fits in?

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Getting a head start

The desired impacts of the National Education Nature Park and Climate Leaders Award is for young people to have a greater connection to nature, understand it’s value, and promote better physical and mental health. A school’s duty of promoting the well-being of members of their community and their duty to safeguarding provides an opportunity to stay ‘one-step ahead’ with regards to the proposals in this draft strategy. Taking the fact that climate change is real, and we can increasingly attribute it to extreme weather events that can threaten school sites and the well-being of pupils, both physically and mentally, then we can frame climate change as a safeguarding issue – a framing that I and others have dedicated a lot of time to promoting.

Schools can consider their contexts and pose themselves some questions to ask themselves in order to develop their own approaches in framing climate change as a safeguarding issue. Here are some example questions based upon safeguarding links from the UK Government Department for Education’s ‘Keeping children safe in education: Statutory guidance for schools and colleges.’ document.

As mentioned earlier, the Science, Geography and Citizenship subject areas will likely have expertise in mapping climate change and sustainability to their curriculum areas and so can support other subject areas in the school with mapping. Could the ‘warming stripes’ be used as part of an art project? Could a climate-change or nature-based school production be put on for Drama? Can the DT department get pupils to build mini electronics powered by solar cells? There could be a fantastic opportunity to start linking curriculums together. There are plenty of resources available which can support this, such as the Leeds Development Education Centre’s Climate Curriculum, including downloadable climate action lessons for Maths, Modern Foreign Languages, RE, Citizenship and Science.

A school could undertake a curriculum mapping exercise. Departments or subject areas undergo curriculum reviews and self-evaluation as per normal procedure. Setting some time aside for each department to go through their curriculum and map what they already do, and what they could potentially do, to climate change and sustainability would be an excellent way to get ahead.

There are also an increasing number of regional school networks that focus on sustainability. I highly recommend you check out the UK Schools Sustainability Network (UKSSN) to find if your school is in a region with a network you can join, or find out how you can set one up. And definitely take a lot at the ‘Lets Go Zero’ campaign and Ministry of Eco Education, whose aims are pretty much perfectly aligned with many of those in this draft strategy.

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So there we have are some ideas to think about in staying ahead of the game. Given that the timelines in the draft strategy are very short, starting pretty much immediately and onto 2030, only a few years’ time, do spare some time to think about which of these ideas might have the potential for your school to hit the ground running.


If you found this article helpful, then please do consider watching a deeper-dive that I recorded on behalf of the Geographical Association and The National College.

No doubt I’ll return to the DfE’s plans when they are solidified and published later next year. So watch this space.


Thank you! All my education work via the Geogramblings’ “Life Geographic” blog is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by ‘buying me a coffee.

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Citing this post

APA: Rackley, K. (2021, December 9). The DfE Draft Strategy on Climate Change & Sustainability Education: A Head’s Up & A Head Start [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://geogramblings.com/2021/12/09/the-dfe-draft-strategy-on-climate-change-amp-sustainability-education-a-heads-up-amp-a-head-start

MLA: Rackley, Kit. “The DfE Draft Strategy on Climate Change & Sustainability Education: A Head’s Up & A Head Start”. Geogramblings. 9 December. 2021, https://geogramblings.com/2021/12/09/the-dfe-draft-strategy-on-climate-change-amp-sustainability-education-a-heads-up-amp-a-head-start

Harvard: Rackley, K. (2021). The DfE Draft Strategy on Climate Change & Sustainability Education: A Head’s Up & A Head Start [Online]. Geogramblings. Available at: https://geogramblings.com/2021/12/09/the-dfe-draft-strategy-on-climate-change-amp-sustainability-education-a-heads-up-amp-a-head-start (Accessed: day month year)

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