After COP26: What and where next for climate work in primary schools?

Written by: Dr Verity Jones | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

From eco-anxiety to the curriculum, from school travel to buildings, there is much to do if we are to truly prioritise climate change education and carbon reduction in schools. Dr Verity Jones advises and signposts to a range of resources to help

COP26 was labelled by many as our last chance to mitigate climate change.

The conclusions of COP26’s Education and Environment Ministers Summit have been published (COP26, 2021) and the COP26 committee agreed to the integration of sustainability and climate change in formal education systems. Climate education is to be included in core curriculum components, in guidelines, teacher training, and examination standards.

As we take stock of commitments made (and not made) at the summit, the education community is left to make sense of it all. Undoubtedly there is a need for significant resources and outside support to assist with this curriculum shift, but we must also recognise how our schools are part of the social systems that contribute to the problems.

For example, it is hypocritical for teachers and learners to discuss and worry about the need to reduce carbon emissions in the classroom if there is little to no insulation and haphazard heating systems in school buildings, or if all staff travel in single occupancy cars with many parents choosing to drop children off by car in the morning clogging streets and choking the air with exhaust fumes.

Schools need to be seen to practise what they teach. In response to COP26, four education unions (NEU, NASUWT, UCU and Unison) called for not only a comprehensive review of the entire curriculum, but substantial energy efficiency to existing school buildings and a detailed policy on green travel for students, staff and parents. This holistic approach to climate change is essential if it is to make sense to young people and make a difference.

Climate change in the curriculum

Throughout the summit I visited many schools and observed many lessons. Even though climate change isn’t explicitly referred to in the national curriculum, I heard pupils talking about climate change in all of them. However, the majority of these lessons were restricted to geography and science subjects. Alan Kinder, in his in his Headteacher Update article published during COP26 article published during COP26, noted that this reliance on a limited number of subjects to deliver climate education needs rethinking.

As educators we know that providing relevant, timely contexts can be a hook for learners’ engagement. Teachers’ time is at a premium and the results of quick internet searches can often be the bedrock of lessons we are not secure in.

Research has shown that there is an overwhelming desire for more climate education in schools (Howard-Jones et al, 2021). So, by ignoring climate education in all but geography and science lessons we are missing out on relevant contextual opportunities that our young learners want to engage with.

Cotham Gardens Primary School in Bristol is one example of a whole school approach that is working. A co-operative school committed to have every stakeholder’s voice heard, Cotham Gardens began having curriculum strikes – going off timetable to learn about climate change at the same time as School Climate Strikes.

Following three of these the school then went into consultation with its community to plan how to continue to teach a climate change curriculum. This year they have planned six half-days dedicated to climate education, as well as integrating topic learning and class reading books on these themes.

Each year group has a practical, solution-focused challenge to engage with – from setting up a school wormery and composting system, to making repurposed shopping bags and building raised beds for growing vegetables.

There is concern that a growing number of pupils are experiencing eco-anxiety (even our youngest pupils). Without doubt there is necessity for teacher training around climate education as colleagues have raised concerns over lack of subject knowledge and appropriate pedagogies to deliver what is a sensitive issue for many young people (Howard-Jones et al, 2021).

What is eco-anxiety?

Eco-anxiety is a fear of environmental doom (Clayton et al, 2017). September 2021 saw the publication of the world’s largest study of eco-anxiety with 10,000 young people from 10 countries (Marks et al, 2021). It was noted pupils may show anything from occasional concern to daily, constant panic attacks in the face of climate change.

Such triggers can lead to mental and physical health impacts with emotional responses ranging from guilt and helplessness to sadness and anger. Teachers need both the confidence and the tools with which to facilitate climate education without causing greater anxiety.

David Hicks (2014) calls for “hopeful pedagogies” in our classrooms where there is space in our teaching to look at both the causes, consequences, and importantly, ways to rectify the climate crisis.

I would add to this that addressing misconceptions is also crucial. For example, recently I worked with pupils who were self-confessed climate worriers. While there was grave concern for the polar bears’ loss of habitat, one of their biggest fears was drowning in the rising sea levels. They thought that rising sea levels and melting ice caps would result in the whole planet being underwater. However, current estimates would see a 0.3m rise in the next 80 years. While this will have significant impacts on the millions of people who live in coastal areas and increase flood risks around river catchments, it will not see global submersion. This knowledge may, to some degree, alleviate a little of the immediate eco-anxiety of pupils.

In addition, Marks et al (2021) note that the impact of climate anxiety is at its worst when young people feel a sense of betrayal by government inaction. In my recent survey of around 1,200 seven to 18-year-olds (Jones, 2021) I found significant support by young people for much of the government’s Green Industrial Revolution Strategy (DECC, 2020), yet little awareness that these policies and plans are in place.

The gap young learners have with regards knowledge of government climate action is one that we could help to close.

What about travel to school?

Many teachers will remember the School Travel Plan initiative that started in 2003. By 2010, the government had supported this scheme to the sum of £120m for capital investment to local authorities and schools to help implement school travel plans, and £35m for revenue funding (mainly for local authority staff).

I spent years promoting walk to school weeks, car-sharing, cycle festivals, taking assemblies and lessons on road safety and cycle training. Specialist local authority officers consulted with each individual school to set out an action plan in collaboration with all stakeholders.

Among other things, cycle shelters and wet weather waiting areas were erected, changing rooms and drying facilities for staff cycling to work were installed, footpaths were lit, cycle ways constructed, and zebra crossings painted.

For those who embraced the plan there were improvements. More sustainable travel meant safer roads, cleaner air and more opportunity for exercise.

However, the programme’s impacts were declared negligible and the independent evaluation of the initiative (Atkins, 2010) noted that further provision and reward would be necessary if schools were to continue supporting sustainable travel.

Since then, the Modeshift STARS Education scheme has been introduced as an award system for schools working on travel plans and encouraging more sustainable, healthy travel to school. But this has had limited success with only 70 of the 300-plus local authorities in England being engaged. This equates to about 3,500 of 24,000-plus schools. Compared to the 81 per cent of schools that had an active school travel plan in 2009 as part of the original government-funded initiative, the renewed support that is needed to make sustainable travel a reality is considerable.

What to do? Next steps

Here follows a range of ideas, inspiration, and resources to support your climate education and wider work, with all links to be found in the further information.

  • Look at your curriculum: where can climate change be embedded? If you’re stuck for where to start, take a look at Leeds Development Education Centre’s Climate Curriculum for key learning outcomes by the end of each key stage or the Global Goals Centre for a database of useful resources.
  • Look at professional development opportunities for all staff. A starting point for subject knowledge might be checking out the Climate Generations resources (see below). For insights into how to talk to children about climate change in light of eco-anxiety, watch Jo McAndrews’ 2018 talk.
  • Support knowledge and best practice exchange between teachers, schools, researchers and experts in the field by joining groups such as the Climate Change Education Research Network.
  • Plan to support eco-anxiety by investigating the misconceptions your pupils have about climate change. Signpost the work that is being done to mitigate climate change at the local, national and global level – Charity Choice has a useful database. Highlight government policies such as the Green Industrial Revolution Strategy (DECC, 2020).
  • Look at your travel plan – how are people travelling to school and could it be more sustainable? Check out Modeshift’s STARS Education scheme and Sustran’s guide to increasing active travel to school.
  • Look at your school building – check-out the government’s top tips to reduce energy and water use in schools (DfE, 2012)

Further information & resources

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