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Primary Education News
News PR smokescreen cannot hide the holes in climate teaching proposals | Bob Ward
The new national curriculum provide a less in-depth introduction to climate change, and misses out vital information about risks
The Department for Education this month ended a consultation on its controversial proposals for the national curriculum amid protests about its plans to cut back on the teaching of climate change.
The education secretary, Michael Gove, launched his review of the curriculum in January 2011, but it has been beset by problems and delays, including complaints about of a lack of transparency and resignation threats from key advisers. It has also been hit by criticisms over suggestions that climate change would be omitted from a new slimmed-down version of the curriculum, which would be taught in English schools from September 2014.
In June 2011, Tim Oates, who led the national curriculum review expert panel, told the Guardian that climate change should not be compulsory for school lessons, on the grounds that it was a "topical issue".
Shortly after, Gove made the same point in an interview in the Times:
"One of the problems we have had with science in the past is that people have said 'in order to make science relevant you've got to link it to things which are contemporary' - climate change or food scares - but … what they need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton's laws of thermodynamics and Boyle's law."
The trouble for Oates and Gove is that they were displaying an utter ignorance of the history of science. The study of climate change is much older than the discovery of plate tectonics or the structure of DNA, for instance, with Svante Arrhenius in 1896 publishing the first calculations of how much global warming will occur as the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase.
After much delay, the Department for Education published in February 2013 details of the stripped down curriculum at key stages 1-3, for pupils up to age 14.
Climate change has been all but removed. It is explicitly referred to only in the programme of study for science in KS3 chemistry, which states that pupils should be taught about "the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the impact on climate".
This is more specific than the current national curriculum for science, introduced in 2007, which states that courses should include "human activity and natural processes can lead to changes in the environment" and describes pupils' performance as exceptional if they "describe and explain the importance of a wide range of applications and implications of science in familiar and unfamiliar contexts, such as addressing problems arising from global climate change".
And at KS4, the new national curriculum for science includes "carbon dioxide and methane as greenhouse gases", and, bizarrely, "carbon capture and storage", while ignoring all other methods of emissions reduction, such as renewables.
However, the new national curriculum for geography omits any explicit reference to climate change, indicating only that pupils should be taught about "weather and climate". In contrast, current KS3 geography is expected to cover "interactions between people and their environments, including causes and consequences of these interactions, and how to plan for and manage their future impact". These lessons "should include the investigation of climate change", during which pupils learn about "how their consumption of energy has a global impact on physical systems such as climate".
Given these radical changes, it was perhaps not surprising that learned societies and universities have objected to the cuts to climate change teaching and the removal of any reference to its societal impacts or ways of tackling it through mitigation and adaptation.
In its consultation response, the Royal Meteorological Society stated: "We strongly advocate that the topic of climate change be added to the geography curriculum to complement coverage of the scientific basis of climate change in the science curriculum".
And the Geographical Association recommended that pupils at KS3 lessons should be "required to understand how human activity, including how the human use of natural resources (currently listed as a human 'process') can impact upon natural systems at a range of scales (including the global scale eg climate change)".
But rather than listening to the advice of these experts, the Department for Education has launched an extraordinary spin offensive to try to divert criticism. It issued a press release insisting "it is not true that climate change is being removed from the national curriculum", and claiming that "the new national curriculum will give pupils a deeper understanding of all climate issues, including climate change".
However, this PR smokescreen cannot hide the gaping holes in the department's proposals. As I and colleagues point out in our consultation response, the new curriculum provide a less in-depth introduction to climate change for pupils, and misses out vital information about risks that will be created by "business as usual" emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as options for managing these risks through adaptation and mitigation.
These omissions would undermine the core knowledge base of pupils who will experience firsthand those impacts of climate change that are now unavoidable and who will be faced in their lifetimes with important decisions and choices about how to manage and respond to climate change risks.
If Gove continues to ignore our warnings about the deficiencies in his proposals, the new national curriculum will end up failing to provide pupils with the essential knowledge, skills and understanding that they need to be educated citizens.