This article is a companion piece to a news story published on the CHES website.
Last week, CHES and the IES attended the launch of the Department for Education’s (DfE) Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy. The Strategy presented a major opportunity for the education system to support sustainable development and to meet the urgent challenge of the climate crisis. The final Strategy has largely failed to live up to those expectations, with some positive ambition but key details and action plans still missing.
How did we get here?
At the end of 2021 there were a number of key announcements related to sustainability, particularly on the subject of climate change. In October, the UK published its Net Zero Strategy, setting out the country’s high-level plans to reach ‘net zero’. In November, at the COP26 UN Climate Summit, the DfE released its own Draft Strategy for consultation, with its own commitments and plans.
The Draft Strategy from the DfE had a wider reach than the Net Zero Strategy, also looking at the crucial question of Education for Sustainable Development, albeit with a limited frame of reference. It also sought to utilise the education system to drive sustainability through society, rather than solely focusing on departmental contributions to creating a more sustainable country.
In January, CHES and the IES began carefully scrutinising the Draft Strategy to see if it met the challenge of the hefty ambitions suggested by the DfE, concluding that while the Draft Strategy “contain[ed] lots of positive ambition, and a strong recognition of many of the most important issues … it is not yet ambitious enough to deliver transformative change and secure a sustainable future”.
CHES worked with the IES to produce a response which was published in February, laying out a detailed analysis of the Draft Strategy, along with 20 recommendations necessary to make the most of the opportunity to transform the education system. Some of those recommendations were delivered in the final Strategy, but the majority are not yet reflected in the DfE’s plans.
What’s in the final Strategy?
Many of the commitments in the DfE’s Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy are tied to existing commitments made elsewhere, particularly in the UK’s Net Zero Strategy, 25 Year Environment Plan, and Plan for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. In addition to aligning the education system with existing pledges, the Draft Strategy set ambitions for delivering sustainable education and meeting the DfE’s own sustainability targets.
The Strategy provides some new commitments beyond those made in the Draft Strategy, including:
- Sustainability leads in every education setting, with the promise that each of these leads will receive carbon literacy training
- Measures to improve reporting and monitoring on school emissions and progress towards meeting the Strategy
- More information about pilots for two key initiatives: the National Education Nature Park and the Climate Leaders Award
- New commitments to improved sharing of best practice (albeit without full details of how this will be achieved)
- Plans for a natural history GCSE
- Many other small changes and additional details, including recognition of the role of professional, statutory and regulatory bodies in developing skills
Unfortunately, a handful of commitments made in the Draft Strategy have been dropped from the final Strategy, representing a step backwards from meeting the scale of ambition required. Examples include the removal of the Draft Strategy’s ‘route to achieving our vision’ which included a detailed figure with stated actions, outcomes, and aims. The level of detail originally provided has not been adequately replaced elsewhere in the final Strategy.
Other concerning changes include less requirements for ‘net zero’ reporting by DfE suppliers, as well as an updated foreword which now excludes the commitment to a ‘whole-system’ approach which underpinned many of the commitments in the Draft Strategy. Ultimately, the lack of detailed delivery plans and resources may make it difficult for the Strategy to achieve its substantial ambitions.
What did CHES & the IES recommend?
Successful action to address sustainable development and the climate crisis will require transformation across the workforce, as well as the comprehensive embedding of sustainability and carbon literacy across all streams of education and throughout the curriculum. Sustainability is not subject-specific and the scale of change required for the climate transition requires a strong approach backed by scientific data, evidence, and robust delivery plans.
In the response to the Draft Strategy, CHES and the IES set out 20 recommendations to support the DfE in reaching that ambition. The recommendations were made across five categories: (1) aspirations and values (2) evidence and data (3) implementation (4) skills across the workforce and (5) embedding climate citizenship.
Some recommendations have been properly reflected in the final Strategy. For example, a section of the Draft Strategy which previously may have implied that engaging in climate citizenship could be viewed as a contentious political act has now been amended to avoid ambiguity about the importance of climate citizenship, hopefully empowering teachers to discuss the concept in its entirety, including the interactions between non-political science and citizenship.
Though the Strategy has not fully met the expectations and requirements of a plan to drive transformative change of the education system, there are still many positive elements of the Strategy. In addition, a number of the initiatives laid out in the Strategy have the potential to make a substantial difference to embedding sustainability.
Both the National Education Nature Park and the Climate Leaders Award have the potential to support carbon and sustainability literacy in meaningful ways. Pilot schemes over the coming months will provide an insight into whether or not the process of change is beginning to manifest.
Regardless of the level of ambition presented in the DfE’s final Strategy, one of the major drivers of sustainability has always been the work of education professionals seeking to embed sustainability and carbon literacy in their work. Continuing efforts to ensure the resources and commitment from the DfE and other governments internationally will be important, as will ongoing action from teachers, universities, and other education practitioners.