Our environmental predicament has become increasingly clear, the science is unequivocal, global heating is happening. With an average surface temperature rise of 1.18 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century, we are already experiencing direct impacts in the form of warmer oceans, melting glaciers, shrinking ice sheets, decreased snow cover, sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather events .
This dawning realisation has led to a series of environmental proclamations, at a range of scales, from nations to individual institutions, to simultaneously recognise the situation and begin to take action. The Board of Governors at the institution for this research, the University of Worcester, made a Climate Emergency Declaration in July 2019 , as did the local council within which the University resides, Worcester City Council, committing itself to taking action to help the city become carbon neutral by 2030 . What impact have these pronouncements had on education and educational leadership?
The role of education, in tackling our climate crisis, has long been acknowledged by the international community, from education to promote action, to increasing understanding of the impacts and developing learner agency. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Paris Agreement and the Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) agenda make it clear that education to engage and empower all stakeholders is essential. UNESCO has an Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) programme that works to highlight education as a crucial international response to climate change, to produce and disseminate policy guidance and technical support, and has prioritised ‘Climate Action’ as a key driver for their goals until 2030. In their most recent publication, Learn for our Planet , UNESCO report that education is not providing sufficient competencies for young people to adapt and act in response to the climate and ecological crisis. Their study of curricula across 50 countries identified that over half make no reference to climate change, that there is little attention to socio-economic or action-orientated skills and a third of their educator respondents indicated that environment related issues were not included in teacher education . The study concludes that environmental issues are “weakly integrated in pre-service and in-service teacher education programmes. Most teachers have received either minimal preparation or no preparation in these content areas.” .
Despite the UK being the first National Government to make a declaration of climate emergency on 1st May 2019 [5, 6], very little has been done since to adapt national education provision, to support educational leadership, or change policy and procedures in light of this acute situation. Neither the new Education Inspection Framework  or the ITT Core Content Framework  make any reference to climate emergency or ESD for pupils, educators or education leaders. Additionally, the Education Act  remains unchanged, despite an ongoing campaign from the Sustainability and Environmental Education (SEEd) organisation, to include an environmental focus by amending Sect. 78 to include the following after subsection (1) (b): (c) instils an ethos and ability to care for oneself, others and the natural environment, now and in the future . Education on climate change and sustainable development do not appear in the UK government 25 year Environment plan .
Whilst post-declaration education policy and curriculum change in England appears lax and unmoved, youth interest and voice has risen to the fore. From the development of the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) organising over 850 demonstrations in 2019, to the emergence of ‘Teach the Future’. This is a youth-led campaign with a vision to urgently repurpose the UK education system to teach students about climate change, to include green skills in vocational courses, as well as making education infrastructure more climate-friendly. In February 2020 they presented their own Climate Education Bill to the House of Commons  and later that year they commissioned a research agency, Opiniom, to survey 500 teachers with a range of questions about climate change, their schools and their teaching practice. They reported that 92% of 503 responding teachers are concerned about climate change, 41% answering that climate change is rarely or never mentioned in their school and 17% confirming that climate change is mentioned in core subjects other than science and geography. A small proportion of participants, 5% of those surveyed, acknowledged positively that climate change is integral to many different aspects of the curriculum and teaching in their own schools .
In March 2021 Teach the Future published further findings from their research, ‘Teaching the Future’, with TeacherTapp (an app that undertakes daily educator surveys to inform school leaders and policy makers), reporting that 70% of the 7,682 respondents confirmed that that they ‘haven’t received training on any aspects’ in response to the question in Fig. 1:
In contrast, research by Howard-Jones et al  on the views from a sample of 626 teachers in schools in England on climate change education in the curriculum (as well as their opinions on a variety of approaches and funding), identified that a similar proportion of teacher participants (73.3%) are already directly teaching, or talking to, pupils about climate change. Their research also suggested participant support of an early introduction to climate change education in the curriculum, which the authors proposed in equal precedence with literacy and numeracy, with most responses supporting provision from primary school. This is at odds with the mandated UK curriculum in which climate change education does not appear until key stage three (pupils aged 11 to 14) and then only in science and geography and which does not include reference to resulting social justice issues. Howard-Jones et al  draw attention to the finding that their participants did not consider climate change activities for social change to be too political for them to be involved in education, but also expressed that individual advocacy (active pupil participation) was favoured for older pupils, with family participation preferred for primary pupils.
Teach the Future have continued to champion political action and in June 2021 issued a joint statement, with the National Union of Students’, Students Organising for Sustainability, Mock COP and the University and College Union, for the G20 Education Ministers  calling on them to ‘step up for people and planet’. There is a clear youth appetite and a distinct willingness to respond to our dire plight.
Educator opinions about the role of teachers in our climate crisis are varied. The chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, reportedly fended off suggestions to make more curriculum space for climate change  and Enser  (a Head of Geography, research lead and author), argued that there is sufficient climate change education in existence in the geography and science curriculums at GCSE level and beyond, and that schools shouldn’t be expected to solve societies problems. However, the Brace and Souch report for the Royal Geographical Society , can help develop our understanding of the actual uptake of the geography GCSE curriculum in the UK. They report that even with a considerable increase in recent exam entries for geography in maintained schools (from 169,000 in 2010 to 239,000 in 2018), that the proportion of boys taking geography in 2018 was 43% and girls 39.4%. These figures confirm that the majority of young people, in selecting their GCSE options, do not have access to key parts of the climate change curriculum in geography. Tim Jones, a religious education and philosophy teacher, rebuts Enser in the Times Educational Supplement , highlighting a curriculum deficit and calling attention to the interdisciplinary nature of the climate problem, implying that it cannot be reduced to one topic in one subject.
In 2019 the University of Worcester was awarded a Green Gown Award for ‘Sustainability Institution of the Year’ , in recognition of the deep commitment to a democratic culture of inclusion, to educational excellence and beneficial impacts to society, and the university also renewed, in 2020, its Responsible Futures accreditation (a unique NUS programme of whole institution supported change to embed sustainability across all aspects of student learning). The institutions School of Education is taking action to embed the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) across campus and curricula. This currently includes, as part of its existing Secondary PGCE core content, an introduction to the Global Goals. This incorporates the online Microsoft Educator course, ‘Teaching Sustainable Development Goals’ , followed by an opportunity to explore school placement and subject based sustainability experiences, global goal 4.7 specifically, as well as other ESD frameworks and organisations e.g. Eco-Schools and research on nature connectedness. Working online with a large cohort of over 200 trainees during pandemic distance teaching in 2021, enabled a Padlet capture of trainee reflections on the ESD they had seen in their first teacher training placement of their PGCE year, as well as an opportunity to share their concerns about their future role as teachers of the SDGs. Reponses were predominantly about the trainees feeling unprepared, that they had experienced little more ESD in schools than the provision of pupil recycling opportunities. Some reflections showed that trainees felt isolated by their ESD concerns, whilst others conveyed fears that they won’t be effective and are unsure how to deliver lessons on this complex problem. A number of geography trainee teachers communicated a sense of burden, within their school community, to take responsibility and leadership for ESD. Climate emergency is clearly not exclusively the geography educators' responsibility, it will impact us all and it is the responsibility of everyone.
This feedback stimulated further a School of Education proposal to broaden the Secondary PGCE ESD content into the development of a 12-hour optional enhancement activity on ‘Education in Climate Emergency’ from September 2021. The School of Education is partnered with hundreds of schools across the West Midlands, collaborations that support pre-service teachers with training placements, as well as offering considerable Continuing Professional Development opportunities for in-service teachers. These existing community connections have the potential to reach, and perhaps influence, a broad array of educators and education leaders in their ESD practice.
Education in Climate Emergency: Provocations for a democratic approach
The following section explores some of the provocations for adopting a democratic approach in the development of a teacher education curriculum for ‘Education in Climate Emergency’.
Jorgen Randers, professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, draws attention to the need to increase participation in the foreword to Stoknes’s  publication on climate denial. Writing that “...we must make it more attractive in the short term for a large group of citizens to take part in the creation of a new green future than to remain in the old fossil one”. In his book Stoknes  argues that the biggest challenge to climate progress is our brains, identifying five main psychological barriers, or ‘inner defenses’, to climate action, as well as addressing how to make progress with five strategies for engaging with global heating through action and solutions. One of those barriers is the concept of distance, both geographic and temporal. A barrier to acceptance of our climate reality, with misconceptions that the climate crisis is not happening in our vicinity and that it is not happening now, leading to a feeling of helplessness, denial and a tendency to focus on more immediate concerns. Stoknes, in his exploration of another barrier, that of denial, suggests that this situation doesn’t arise due to a lack of knowledge or intelligence, but rather exists as a state of mind that enables us to live as if we don’t know the difficult truth, living a double life of knowing and not knowing, a situation that is underpinned by the denial of others in our community, a willful complicity of denial . He also proposes that our cultural identity, our self-conceptions and perceptions in relation to, for example, our nationality, ethnicity, class, religion or perhaps profession, can override connection to difficult climate knowledge . How might educators’ sense of identity, distance and denial be approached to build climate change confirmation and engagement? What is the role of education leaders?
Willis , in her publication on climate challenge and political systems, reports that UK politicians have done little to involve people in climate action. She reminds readers that state level responses to climate change are dependent on social and political conceptions, that responses to climate change are inherently political. Willis identifies a ‘feelgood fallacy’ of focus on low carbon, individualistic, solutions but without the work to curb carbon-intensive actions and without ‘honest conversation’ about the vested interests or our choices to reduce emissions . She argues  that it is possible and essential that we find democratic solutions and invite the democratic involvement of citizens & voters in our responses to decision making at our time of climate breakdown.
One of the demands of Extinction Rebellion (XR), a well-known ‘politically non-partisan international movement that uses non-violent direct action to persuade governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency’ , is to move beyond politics, to create and take direction from resolutions derived from a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice. This process was used in the UK in early 2020, in the form of the ‘Climate Assembly UK’ project, to support Parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s policies and progress on climate change, as well as being an exercise to strengthen UK democracy . The task was outsourced, by the House of Commons, to a triad of organisations: The Involve Foundation, Sortition Foundation and mySociety and took place in central Birmingham and latterly online (due to pandemic restrictions), across a series of six weekends between January and May 2020. The objective of the Assembly was for a representative sample, selected by civic sortition to represent the population, to consider how the UK can meet its legally binding net zero target by 2050. This was done through a process of an initial introduction to climate change, followed by a series of opportunities to hear evidence from a wide range of informants and advocates, an extensive variety of stakeholders and researchers. These inputs were then discussed in depth with groups of assembly participants and was followed by the development of conclusions and votes on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the UK action towards zero emissions. The final online assembly publication shows that the number one principle to underpin the work to net zero, voted in by assembly members, as: “Informing and educating everyone (the public, industry, individuals and government)” . They described the process as “an unprecedented opportunity for the public to contribute to climate change debate, and to influence action taken by Government and Parliament” .
The final stimulus to employing a democratic approach to education in climate emergency emerges, again, from psychology. Pihkala  explores the eco-anxiety literature and analyses the challenges and opportunities it affords. He found that environmental educators need organisational and peer support in relation to their own climate and environmental anxieties, through self-reflection on their own eco-anxiety and supporting their learners develop emotional resilience. He includes research on the ‘alarming number of environmental educators’  facing mental health issues as a result of the pressures they feel to do more and the continuous connection they have to environmental destruction. With environmental educators at strong risk of burnout should the ESD burden be spread across all subjects, all educators and leaders in education?
Pihkala suggests that negative ecological emotions can be transmitted between educators and students and vice versa, often as unspoken phenomena, and the paper shares a variety of practical activities (from the literature of various education fields) that might bolster them; collective action, the validation of ecological grief, the provision of safe discussion spaces, creating ‘peer support and building a community with others’, as well as creative opportunities to deliberate on ecological emotions that can be harnessed to channel emotional responses and build educator resilience . How might these practices be incorporated in an approach to developing education in climate emergency?
This literature, alongside the reflections from emerging secondary teacher practitioners at the University of Worcester and a broadened curriculum space to develop 12 hours of climate education enhancement activity for Secondary PGCE students, inspired the development of a Green Impact project which is outlined in the method below.
The Green Impact project
Green Impact is a flexible environmental scheme that was developed by the National Union of Students (NUS) and is now run by Students Organising for Sustainability (the former NUS Sustainability team). It is a United Nations award winning programme which supports staff and students develop sustainable practices and change processes, it recognises the powerful example that academic institutions provide for their learners and that this example is fundamental in the creation of a sustainable future . The accompanying Green Impact Project Assistant (GIPA) scheme provides training for students to become assistants, adding capacity to projects, linking staff and students and enhancing invaluable transferable skills. The Green Impact project featured in this case study benefitted enormously from the new perspectives, technological skills and drive of dedicated GIPA.
The aims of the Green Impact project were to:
- provide an initial exploration of local educators' attitudes and feelings about the climate emergency.
- build engagement by developing interest and raising awareness of local climate change impacts and mitigation and adaptation strategies.
- confront educators with local examples of climate emergency with the hope that they will carry this forward into leading ESD action.
- develop a sense of connection to this issue and to develop a network of practitioners.
- use the findings to develop training materials for Secondary PGCE trainee teachers.