What should we tell the children?

PSHE Association
Jun 25 · 8 min read

Now that the changing of the seasons is unreliable, the school year seems reassuringly predictable. In September, whatever the weather, four and five-year olds across the country will bustle into schools and start their trip through the curriculum.

When these same children shuffle into exam halls for their A levels, the actions we take now on greenhouse gas emissions will have defined the world they will be entering. Will we have done enough to avoid the worst, or will it be a world locked into catastrophic warming? How will their schools have prepared them for this future?

Current policies put the world on course for 3.2 degrees warming by 2100. For a reminder of what this means, read the latest advice to private sector investors. Three degrees would mean permanent loss of artic sea ice and sea level rise which would drown multiple coastal cities, including Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro and Miami. It would mean 30% decline in fresh water availability. It would be too hot to survive outside in the Arabian Gulf. Hundreds of millions of people would be displaced causing untold geopolitical turmoil and, without doubt, vicious conflict over resources.

Facing the truth about climate change is hard, not least for how it makes us feel about our position in human history. Our own lives can end at any moment but the knowledge there is human history to come adds meaning to our intentions and actions. What if we are among the last generations of humans? How should we spend our time on earth?

Extinction Rebellion provide a simple answer. Put the everyday on hold and press for change. They risk embarrassment, disapproval, arrest and, particularly for teachers, future job prospects. This is what we’re doing, they say politely, what are you doing? Business as usual isn’t an option.

As a human, and Chief Executive of the PSHE Association, I feel this challenge keenly. Our organisation’s mission is to ensure everyone develops the knowledge and skills they need to thrive, now and in the future, and we have long helped schools teach young people about the most pressing issues they face; from mental health to relationships, balanced diets to staying safe online.

But climate change is not an issue, it is the ground we walk on and the air we breathe. It is the question of whether future possibilities for development, creativity and joy remain. How should schools respond?

Battle for the mind

One answer is to give climate change a central place on the school curriculum to ‘ensure the education system portrays the ecological crisis in lessons and pupils learn about it more’, as the Youth Climate Strike demands. But are schools not ‘teaching the truth’ as Extinction Rebellion claim? Is more knowledge about climate change the answer?

Take it from us — an organisation which has successfully campaigned for relationships & sex education and health education to become a compulsory part of the school curriculum — this is not a question to be asked lightly.

The curriculum is the totality of things young people will learn in school and in England it has long been a battleground. Recent years have seen open warfare between so called ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’ with each side mustering truths and evidence, distortions and caricatures to their cause. This is to be expected and, as a dialectic, generally healthy.

Deciding what young people should learn in school is a complex mix of the joy of learning, the aims of policy makers, practical possibility and differing views on what makes effective teaching. A bit of shouting across the aisles is inevitable.

Climate change is caught in the crossfire and not for the first time. It is covered on the current National Curriculum in secondary science and geography but it used to be referenced more extensively and, importantly, in primary school.

These changes led to strong challenge from environmental groups though it would be wrong to assume that they were driven by an anti-environmental agenda. More likely, climate change was dismissed to make room for other academic priorities as the new National Curriculum was deliberately and significantly slimmed down.

The National Curriculum isn’t intended to provide an accurate picture of everything being taught in schools and academies don’t even have to follow it. It does, however, provide a guide to what government expects schools to teach and currently it focuses on human, physical and scientific mechanisms of climate change. Isn’t that the easy part? The real challenge is what to teach once students have grasped the enormity of the science.

Culture and anarchy

Take the carbon budget. To have a reasonable hope of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees we can only emit another 400 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. We currently emit 40 billion tonnes a year. Teach a child this budget will be gone before they’re allowed to drive a car and how do we think they will respond?

One response could be to reject the curriculum completely. As Greta Thunberg has said, ‘what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts given by the finest scientists are ignored by our politicians?’

You can argue for learning for its own sake, but can’t she counter that is a luxury she can’t afford? Or more accurately a luxury stolen from her by previous generations. How can we ensure the curriculum answers this challenge so young people aren’t sceptical about its value?

When our children study a graph of global GDP and a graph of carbon concentration in the atmosphere they will see two lines rising together. Will they appreciate ‘human achievement’ which has carbonised the atmosphere, or curse it?

The Expert Panel who wrote the framework for the current National Curriculum provide a starting point. ‘The first consideration when designing a curriculum,’ they wrote, ‘is to be clear about the purposes the curriculum is expected to serve.’

The architect of that review, Michael Gove, felt that the clear purpose of the curriculum was to ‘introduce young minds to the great minds of the past.’ And so, the stated aim of the National Curriculum is to ‘introduce pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and help engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’

This comes straight from the Victorian Matthew Arnold and at its best is a wonderful ambition to ensure every child, from every background, has equal access to human discovery and culture. Who isn’t excited about opening children’s eyes to the richness of human experience and what Gove called the ‘treasure-house of wonder, delight, stimulation and enchantment’?

But if our current path burns a full stop in the pages of human history, it will force a re-reading of our past. When our children study a graph of global GDP and a graph of carbon concentration in the atmosphere they will see two lines rising together. Will they appreciate ‘human achievement’ which has carbonised the atmosphere, or curse it?

Of course most of the best that has been thought and said is blameless for our atmospheric conditions. Science is infinitely richer than industrial advance. Maths is the language of nature. Music, Art and English offset their carbon emissions with contributions to self-understanding and History contains as many examples of altruism and fellowship as it does of extraction and exploitation.

But if students are to celebrate human achievement, rather than regret it, any curriculum must do more than open the treasure box. It must answer the projections of climate science with a solid grounding in hope for humanity.

Individual responsibility

Soon, the curriculum of individual schools will be under the microscope as Ofsted, the schools’ regulator, have rightly put curriculum design at the heart of their new inspection framework. They will now be asking every school about the ‘intent’ of their curriculum, that is ‘the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and skills to be gained at each stage.’

All schools will have to consider what their curriculum is aiming to achieve. Those who recognise the rising tide may well ask, what’s the aim of our programme of education in a warming world?

The National Curriculum Expert Panel asked the same question in 2011 and concluded that ‘given the government’s ambitious carbon targets…we suggest the Government considers a recommendation that the school curriculum should also contribute to environmental ‘stewardship’.

At the time the Government chose not to include this as an aim for the National Curriculum, but surely it would make an excellent starting point for individual schools as they consider the central purposes of their programmes of education?

And of course, many schools will want to go further. Stewardship, rather than dominance, of the natural world will be essential to our survival but so will our relationship to each other. Young people will need to answer the challenges to come, not just as scientists and civil engineers, in their businesses and supply chains, but in the everyday course of living. Strong local communities and deep global partnerships will be needed.

To create these, we will continue to need young people who know how to develop and maintain strong relationships with friends, partners and their community. They will need to be emotionally literate, able to name their fears and anxieties and harness the resources they need to sustain well-being. They will need the space and support to consider their hopes and aspirations, the knowledge to support their health and the confidence to make hard decisions when future challenges arise.

PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) education is the school subject that develops these capabilities. Its curriculum covers relationships, health and wellbeing, careers and achieving aspirations. At their best, PSHE lessons start with the issues affecting young people day to day and provide the knowledge, skills and personal qualities they need to make their own decisions in real life situations.

As those situations are increasingly affected and defined by climate change, PSHE will be ever more central, developing to respond to young people’s concerns, hopes and needs. My own hope is that PSHE will provide an anchor for the rest of the curriculum, helping young people to marvel at human ingenuity and draw strength, rather than sorrow, from our history.

Hope in the dark

Our future is deeply uncertain, but the present is full of hope. Renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels, energy storage is advancing and electric cars will replace petrol sooner than we think. These developments show we have the technology, but it will not be technology which saves us. It will be humans.

There’s reason to believe we can. Years of near silence on the topic have been broken and conversations enabled and energised in the press and parliament. More and more people are not only aware of the impact of human activity on the climate, but actively engaged in tackling it in their personal, professional and political lives.

Even so. How can we hope to do so much in so little time? The great minds of the past may provide some answers. Take prolific composer Duke Ellington, an exceptional example of human creativity and achievement. How did he achieve so much? ‘I don’t need time,’ he said, ‘I need a deadline.’

We’ve got a deadline.

If we meet it, our children’s children will learn the best that has been thought, said and done in our age. Perhaps they will marvel at all we achieved together. Perhaps they will celebrate our creativity. Perhaps their curriculum will leave them proud to be human.


Jonathan Baggaley is Chief Executive of the PSHE Association, the national body for personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education. PSHE education is a school curriculum subject that supports pupils to be healthy, safe and prepared for modern life. A charity and membership organisation, the Association works to improve PSHE education standards by supporting a national network of teachers and schools with advice, training and resources.

Find out more: www.pshe-association.org.uk

Are you doing anything interesting in climate change education? If so, we’d love to hear from you. please send us an email: info@pshe-association.org.uk

PSHE Association

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The national body for PSHE (personal, social, health & economic) education. Quality resources, guidance, training and support for schools

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