All eyes on November 5 amid calls to decarbonise schools by 2030

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We must decarbonise the education estate by 2030, restore sustainability as a core pillar of our curriculum, and make the school run as green as possible as part of our response to the climate crisis.

With the UN’s climate change conference COP26 taking place in Glasgow from November 9 to 19, teachers are calling upon the Department for Education (DfE) to set out decisive steps to fully embed climate change education in the system.

The DfE’s newly formed Sustainability and Climate Change Unit is due to unveil its climate strategy on November 5, after which a period of consultation will take place. The official launch is not planned until April 2022. Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi is due to take part in an education ministers roundtable with UNESCO during COP26.

Now, four of the biggest teaching unions in England have written a joint letter to Mr Zahawi, calling for definitive action. The unions accused the government this week of having “yet to grasp the gravity of the situation”. They want to see:

  • A review of the entire curriculum to ensure it is “preparing and mobilising our whole society for a sustainable future”.
  • Government support for Lord Jim Knight's Private Member's Bill which aims to restore sustainability as a pillar of the curriculum (see Evennett, 2021).
  • A plan to “decarbonise the entire education estate by 2030” as part of a refurbishment and repair programme.
  • A new policy on green transport and travel for students, staff, and parents.

The letter, which has been sent from the NASUWT, National Education Union, University and College Union, and UNISON, said that COP26 was “an opportunity to take world-changing steps if the message is clear enough”.

The unions want to see new funding to support the retro-fitting of educational buildings to net-zero standards via the national infrastructure plan. It wants all new state-funded educational buildings to be net-zero from 2022 and all existing buildings retro-fitted to net-zero by 2030.

In July, responding to the House of Commons Environment and Climate Change Committee, the DfE said that its sustainability strategy is likely to focus on four key aims (UK Parliament, 2021):

  • Net zero by 2050 (in line with the government target).
  • Ensuring schools and students are “resilient to climate change”.
  • A better environment for future generations.
  • Citizens connected to nature.

It says that the publication of its strategy in April 2022 will be “the starting point of a programme of change in guidance, policy and communications to lead and coordinate the education sector towards our net-zero targets and a more resilient education estate”.

The DfE’s evidence to the committee focused mainly on school infrastructure, highlighting that addressing energy-use and carbon emissions across the 22,000 or so schools in England – which have around individual 64,000 buildings – was a particular challenge.

However, it also said that DfE officials would be holding workshops this term to discuss how our education system can “best prepare this generation for the world in which they will live”.

It comes as the UK has been ranked 42 out of 73 nations in terms of its education response to climate change. The Climate Change Education Ambition Report Card (Kwauk, 2021) has been published by Education International and examines the level of ambition on climate education as well as issues such as the timescales involved, quality of climate education, inclusion, funding, and more.

The four unions want the government to “work up” to the Education International Manifesto for Climate Education, which calls for quality, science-based climate education and effective teacher training in order to produce “climate-literate students”.

Other actions called for in the letter include the creation of a new professional qualification for teachers on climate, a national Climate Education Information Institute to disseminate scientific information, resources and CPD to schools, and a new statutory role of climate coordinator in schools.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “The UK government needs to step-up to ensure teachers have the resources and tools to provide access to curriculum entitlements that give all children and young people the opportunity to develop their understanding of environmental issues and to be responsible citizens.

“We also need to see much more action from the government to deliver substantial improvements to the energy efficiency of existing school buildings which have suffered from significant under-investment over decades.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, added: "Schools and colleges can play their part and the UK government needs to ensure that quality climate change education is embedded across the curriculum, as well as focusing on decarbonising the education estate by 2030."

  • Education International: Manifesto for Climate Education:
  • Evennett: Education (Environment and Sustainable Citizenship) Bill, House of Lords Library, July 2021:
  • Kwauk: Climate Change Education Ambition Report Card, Education International, September 2021:
  • The SecEd Podcast: Eco-work and reducing carbon emissions in schools, August 2021:
  • UK Parliament: Written evidence: Delivering COP26 across Government, Environment and Climate Change Committee, July 2021:

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