• Students say the climate change education they receive is too focused on passing exams, and doesn’t equip them with the skills needed to tackle future impacts of the climate crisis
  • Young people want solutions-based teaching that has more relevance to their own lives, and not just to learn facts about climate change and associated impacts
  • Today (Monday 5 June) is the 50th World Environment Day. The British Science Association and University of Plymouth are amplifying the voices of young people and their calls for better and more accessible climate change education

New research reveals that 7 in 10 UK 14-to-18-year-olds would welcome the opportunity to learn more about climate change in school (72%) and that 7 in 10 felt that climate change education should be included across all subjects (68%).

This research was carried out as part of the Future Forum programme, run by the British Science Association (BSA), which aims to find out young people’s perspectives and concerns about topics related to science. This Future Forum was funded by the University of Plymouth and delivered in partnership with Professor Alison Anderson, an expert in environmental communication at the University of Plymouth.

The BSA commissioned a survey of a representative sample of 1,000 UK 14-to-18-year-olds, with the findings informing two exploratory workshops with 41 14-to-18-year-old participants across England. The resulting report, titled Climate change in secondary schools: young people's views of climate change and sustainability education has been published today

Climate change teaching is subject-dependent

When asked which subject they learnt the most about climate change in, 57% of young people said science and 47% said geography. Other subjects scored significantly lower (Design & Technology – 16%, PSHE – 13%, Art – 9%). As geography is an optional GCSE subject, students who don’t opt to study it are immediately excluded from the climate change learning which forms part of the human- and physical geography curriculum.

Science, however, forms part of the core GCSE curriculum. Around two-thirds of students in the UK take Double Award Science (two GCSEs combining all three science subjects), whilst the remaining third study Triple Science (separate GCSEs for biology, chemistry and physics). The Double Award has approximately one third less science content than the Triple Award and covers topics in less breadth and depth, which could lead to inequalities in climate education and inequity in science education, in addition to reinforcing social inequalities.

The potential impact on inequity in science education is outlined in a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity & Inclusion in STEM. The option of two routes is intended to provide choice; however, the inquiry received evidence of concerns this may be exacerbating existing socioeconomic inequity. Around 80% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds take combined science compared to 66% of their peers. This reflects the fact that in some cases Triple Award science simply isn't offered in their schools – approximately 8% of schools in England, mostly situated in disadvantaged areas, do not enter any students for Triple Award Science.

In the exploratory workshops that followed the Future Forum survey, students were invited to share their experiences of climate change education in small discussion groups. This revealed more about the next generation’s feelings towards the climate crisis.

The siloed approach and subject-specific manner of teaching – with science covering the scientific mechanisms associated with the climate crisis, and geography emphasising causes and impacts, predominantly on ecosystems and animal habitats – mean that young people struggle to get a ‘big picture’ understanding of climate change.

According to one student aged 18: “I think that a problem with only talking about climate change in science is that if children aren’t interested in the sciences, and lots of them aren’t, then you immediately lose any interest in climate change because it’s not integrated well into the other subjects.”

Many students also think that the teaching agenda is too aligned with passing exams, rather than imparting meaningful and useful knowledge about climate change.

One of the workshop participants, aged 17, said: “Please teach us beyond the [exam] specification. Climate change goes beyond marks in a test, so teach us this. Teach us the power we hold, even against the government, and how we can influence policy.”

Inspiring and empowering students

Young people believe the current approach to climate change education contributes to a sense of climate anxiety and does not inspire hope. In the workshops they recalled out-of-date case studies and learning about climate change in relation to faraway countries. They understand that such examples show what is happening, but are also eager to find out about climate change impacts that are closer both in terms of geography and their own lives.

Interestingly, when asked to select an image that illustrates what climate change means to them, 7 out of 41 participants chose images portraying polar bears and loss of animal habitats due to melting sea ice. None chose images featuring people or the impact of climate change on human populations. The images used in the report are those selected by the young people in this exercise.

Older students (aged 17 and 18) are acutely aware of activists like Greta Thunberg and groups like Fridays For Future, and some expressed a desire to be taught about ways to affect positive societal change. In addition to knowledge beyond what is needed to pass their GCSEs, the young people expressed interest in the social, economic and political issues associated with the climate crisis.

According to one workshop participant aged 18: “Obviously, this would never come up on the specification, but like activism, political activism about changing attitudes and how we run the country – in terms of climate, those would be more important, and those things were never covered in my time at school.”

The future of climate change education

The most frequently occurring themes in the young people’s calls to action were: compulsory and/or more accessible, more engaging climate change education (17 of 41 participants) and solutions-oriented teaching (12 of 41 participants). The next generation want to be equipped with the tools to contribute to tackling the climate crisis; this research highlights significant gaps in the curriculum and a feeling of concern amongst young people.

The BSA and University of Plymouth would like the report and its recommendations to inform the direction of the Department for Education’s sustainability and climate change strategy whilst in its primary stages of implementation.

On May 18 it was reported that the Department for Education were reversing plans to provide carbon literacy training for schools in England, as set out in the strategy. The DfE promised that carbon literacy training would be available to support sustainability leads across all education settings starting in 2023.

According to the Department, user research has shown that “different support requirements and a single training offer would not be appropriate”. Instead they will be rolling out a different support programme: “from early years provisions to universities, [educators] will have free access to a digital support hub and a regional sector engagement and support service”.

Professor Alison Anderson, Professor in Sociology and risk communication expert, University of Plymouth says:

“I’m really proud to partner with the British Science Association on this Future Forum about young people’s experiences of climate change education. This report provides useful, actionable insights to those of us tasked with equipping young people with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to take action on the climate crisis.

“There are clear and loud calls for agency and empowerment from the young people we surveyed and interviewed. Only by engaging with the next generation can we develop a successful climate education strategy, giving young people the confidence and knowledge to tackle environmental challenges.

“I hope this report serves to provoke further discussion and debate on this important issue and I look forward to hearing the response from those working in climate education, communications, youth engagement, and related fields.”

Clio Heslop, Head of Policy, Partnerships & Impact, British Science Association says:

“This Future Forum has been eye-opening. We’re aware, from other BSA workshops and polling, that young people don’t feel heard by decisionmakers and wider society. Finding out about their experiences of climate change in the classroom, and how that’s impacting their anxieties and outlook, shows that action must be taken to make it better for them.

“We hope that the findings of this report help the Department for Education in planning the digital hub and local engagement services for supporting carbon literacy and improving climate change education.”

Christina Adane, activist, British Science Association Honorary Fellow says:

"As a young person recently out of the education system, the findings of this report are all too familiar. If I hadn’t chosen to study Geography at A-Level, I would not have a thorough understanding of one of the biggest issues my generation faces.

"We need relevant and compulsory climate change education that empowers our youth with the knowledge and tools to confront the crisis. It must provide a critical analysis of all the stakeholders at play and the socio-economic implications of climate change, whilst ensuring young people are positively impacted to make change on local, national or global levels."

The Future Forum survey polled a representative sample of 1,000 14-to-18-year-olds in the UK and was carried out by OnePoll. Download the full survey data (opens in new tab).

For more information on the Future Forum programme and youth voice work at the BSA, please get in touch at info@britishscienceassociation.org

Extracted from BCS website, read more here

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