The climate crisis, the curriculum and CPD

Written by: Heena Dave | Published:
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The role of school leadership in responding to the environmental challenges of our generation is crucial – and will include ensuring high-quality teacher support and CPD. Heena Dave advises


More than ever we are seeing the impacts of human activity on our natural world. The United Nations highlights that limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C would help us avoid the worst climate impacts and maintain a liveable climate.

While a growing coalition of countries is committing to net-zero emissions by 2050, about half of emissions cuts must be in place by 2030 to keep warming below 1.5°C.

Running alongside this are the challenges we face as a result of wholescale loss of biodiversity. In his forward for the Dasgupta Review, (a Treasury-commissioned independent review on the economics of biodiversity), Sir David Attenborough emphasises that if we continue this damage, whole ecosystems will collapse (Dasgupta, 2021).

The need to protect our environment and the drive towards environmental sustainability has never been so urgent. Environmental sustainability is difficult to define and harder to achieve, but should be viewed as a combination of balance, resilience and interconnectedness with the natural world. To achieve this, human society must not exceed the capacity of its supporting ecosystems to regenerate or allow our actions to diminish biological diversity (Morelli, 2011).

To meet these urgent challenges, the Department for Education’s draft Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy recognises the critical part that education will play in fighting climate change (DfE, 2021; see also Headteacher Update, 2021). The strategy aims to ensure that children and young people are equipped with the right knowledge, understanding and skills to meet the environmental challenges they will face as adults.

Within this context, it is crucial that school leaders consider how they will empower the next generation of children as stewards of the Earth. As Hargreaves and Fink (2006) highlight: “Change in education is easy to propose, hard to implement, and extraordinarily difficult to sustain.”

While there is no easy answer and the research literature is often tentative, we know that the transformation of a school oriented towards sustainability requires a comprehensive approach, supported by multiple solutions (Müller et al, 2020).

To achieve this, school leaders should focus on three main areas:

  1. Reflecting on their environmental leadership.
  2. The school’s plan for achieving environmental sustainability.
  3. The implementation of a rich curriculum that teaches students about environmental stewardship across all subjects and phases.


The role of school leadership

Given the scale of the environmental challenge faced, research highlights the importance of school leaders in showing a personal and active commitment to the vital role that sustainability plays within the day-to-day life of a school (Müller et al, 2020). Sharing a vision of the future that depicts a natural world that is protected, and supporting the school community to bring to life that version of the future is a crucial role for all school leaders.

In support of this, Maak and Pless (2006), emphasise the importance of responsible school leadership that is focused on social and environmental targets in response to the current deteriorating condition of our global environment. However, to do so effectively, school leaders may need to acquire knowledge and skills in a range of new domains from environmental science to environmental economics so that they can lead pupils, teachers and the wider community to effect positive change.

From this perspective, navigating the school towards sustainability will only succeed if it is purposefully championed by school leaders and if it is supported throughout the school (Müller et al, 2020).


Environmentally sustainable schools

While many schools have developed environmental sustainability policies, research suggests that schools should avoid adopting generic environmental targets and start by completing a thorough audit of their current state (Müller et al, 2020). Such an audit should include an analysis of:

  • The geographical location of the school, to examine, for example, whether the school is at risk from river, coastal or surface water flooding.
  • The environmental challenges faced by the community, such as sources of pollution or biodiversity loss.
  • The current environmental state of the school’s building and grounds, considering aspects such as water usage or areas of heat loss.
  • Feedback from the wider school community on their own thoughts and priorities for environmental sustainability.
  • The school’s own journey in relation to achieving environmental sustainability. This could be anywhere from little or no significant activities to sustainability being comprehensively embedded (Müller et al, 2020).
  • Whether the school building could be made more sustainable through energy-saving measures, sustainable energy technologies or other resource-saving measures (Müller et al, 2020).
  • How the school grounds could be redesigned to support biodiversity (Müller et al, 2020).
  • Whether the school wishes to make sustainable catering options available to teachers and pupils (Müller et al, 2020).
  • The extent to which the school purchases ecologically sustainable and long-lasting products (Müller et al, 2020).

School policies often include a tick-list of environmental targets that can be difficult to achieve if not broken down in enough detail.

To achieve environmental targets fully, thus leading to real and sustained change, school leaders should consider focusing on one or two key priorities and commit to their effective implementation.

For example, if waste separation and recycling is a priority then ensuring that 100 per cent of waste is recycled, reused or disposed of correctly requires systems, processes and auditing every day of every term. At scale, across multiple classrooms, this is challenging and takes time to embed.

Encouraging such sustained pro-environmental behaviours is difficult. One way to overcome this is by utilising green nudges. The Behavioural Insights Team highlights that while green nudges should not be used at the expense of strong policy and regulation, they are an important part of the solution and have been used to encourage sustainable behaviour on higher education campuses.

If you want to nudge a green behaviour, make it “easy, attractive, social and timely”. For example, reducing food waste can be encouraged by reducing the size of plates, removing trays or placing foods that are more sustainable at the front of fridges (UN, 2020).


A curriculum for environmental sustainability

The Dasgupta Review (2021) ends with a plea that our education systems should introduce nature studies from the earliest stages of school. However, achieving tangible benefits and encouraging pro-environmental behaviours through education is not always straightforward.

We do know that deep and well-sequenced knowledge is an important starting point. Research underlines the role of knowledge in solving environmental problems as the second most important indirect determinant of pro-environmental behaviour (Bamberg & Moser, 2007).

School leaders should enable teachers to explore the knowledge that underpins an environmental sustainability curriculum within their subject. For example, exploring the impact of the industrial revolution on carbon dioxide emissions in history is as important as learning about the carbon cycle in science.

In exploring this knowledge, Counsell (2018), emphasises that each subject discipline will have its own substantive and disciplinary knowledge. Substantive knowledge is the content that teachers teach as established fact. For example, in science, secondary pupils may learn that most plastic in use today comes from hydrocarbons derived from crude oil, natural gas and coal and are not biodegradable.

Disciplinary knowledge, by contrast, is a curricular term for what pupils learn about how that knowledge was established, its degree of certainty and how it continues to be revised by scholars, artists or professional practice. It is that part of the subject where pupils understand each discipline as a tradition of enquiry with its own distinctive pursuit of truth (Counsell, 2018).

The disciplinary knowledge associated with plastics should focus on exploring the biodegradability of plastics in relation to other materials through practical enquiry. In this example, the disciplinary knowledge is mapped directly to the substantive knowledge, creating clear knowledge links for climate and sustainability education within the curriculum.

To avoid a patchwork of often unrelated environmental knowledge being taught, school leaders should encourage teachers through professional development and collaboration with external partners, such as subject associations, local universities, community groups and charities, to develop a deeper understanding of environmental issues explicitly within their subject’s distinct discipline. Specifying how substantive and disciplinary knowledge will be sequenced and detailing the practical support pupils will need to improve the natural environment will lead to a more refined curriculum.

As Dr Leigh Hoath, senior professional practice fellow and PGCE science lead at Leeds Trinity University, has said: “Fundamentally we are looking to educate a generation of children that are equipped with deep knowledge and skills and where pro-environmental behaviours are the norm.”


Final reflections

School leaders report that embedding high-quality climate and sustainability education and the creation of green schools is constrained by a shortage of time, space and resources (Müller et al, 2020). However, restoring the natural environment is now an urgent challenge for our generation and should refocus the questions we ask ourselves about the purpose of education.

As the Dasgupta Review concludes, every child in every country is owed the teaching of natural history, to be introduced to the awe and wonder of the natural world, to appreciate how it contributes to our lives. Establishing the natural world within educational policy would contribute to countering the shifting baseline, whereby we progressively redefine ourselves as inhabitants of an emptying world and believe that what we see is how it is and how it will continue to be (Pyle, 2003, cited in Dasgupta, 2021). 

  • Heena Dave is a curriculum designer for the Teacher Development Trust, designing content for the National Professional Qualifications suite. She is a former head of science and co-author of Cracking Key Concepts in Secondary Science (Corwin). She is currently completing a Doctorate in Education on what makes effective environmental education. The Teacher Development Trust is a national charity for effective CPD in schools and colleges. Visit https://tdtrust.org/


Further information & resources

  • Bamberg & Moser: Twenty years after Hines, Hungerford, and Tomera, Journal of Environmental Psychology (27), 2007.
  • Counsell: Taking curriculum seriously, Impact, September 2018: http://bit.ly/2OS3T8C
  • Dasgupta: The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, HM Treasury, August 2021: https://bit.ly/3otcRNQ
  • DfE: Sustainability & Climate Change: A draft strategy for the education & children’s services systems, November 2021: https://bit.ly/307SITM
  • Hargreaves & Fink: Sustainable Leadership, Jossey-Bass, 2006.
  • Maak & Pless: Responsible Leadership, Routledge, 2006.
  • Morelli: Environmental sustainability: A definition for environmental professionals, Journal of Environmental Sustainability (1,1), 2011: https://bit.ly/3dqPjCR
  • Müller, Lude & Hancock: Leading schools towards sustainability: Fields of action and management strategies for principals, Sustainability (12), April 2020: https://bit.ly/3GeT22I
  • Headteacher Update: Using the DfE Climate Change Strategy to develop your school’s sustainability ethos, November 2021:
    https://bit.ly/3E3LmzH
  • United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal & Behavioural Insights Team: The Little Book of Green Nudges: 40 nudges to spark sustainable behaviour on campus, September 2020: https://bit.ly/3pseUkh


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