The Education (Environment and Sustainable Citizenship) Bill [HL] (the bill) was introduced in the House of Lords on 25 May 2021. It is a private member’s bill sponsored by Lord Knight of Weymouth (Labour).

The bill’s second reading is scheduled to take place in the House of Lords on 16 July 2021.

What would the bill do?

The bill would amend the Education Act 2002 (the 2002 act) so that the national curriculum includes education on the environment and sustainable citizenship. A general provision would apply throughout key stages 1–4 (ages 5–16), although other provisions would also apply to secondary school pupils. Explaining the rationale for the proposed measure, Lord Knight has said:

In order for Britain to meet its commitments to reduce our carbon consumption, we need significant behaviour change by the general public. Schools are the best place to start this work because young people and their teachers are especially motivated to want to take action to safeguard their futures. They are then significant influencers on their parents and grandparents.

This youth action means they can also develop the skills and mindset, as well as the knowledge, needed to thrive in a net zero world when they leave school. The current national curriculum contains some of the scientific knowledge, and there is more knowledge in geography but that is not compulsory after 14.

Many children are leaving school not connecting that knowledge with the action they can take. This must change if schools are to reflect the future we want. This bill makes the changes necessary to the national curriculum and in doing so revitalises citizenship to embed action on sustainability. This is necessary to find time in the school week for this activity at secondary [schools].

Lord Knight has produced a longer briefing explaining the reasoning behind his bill on the “Peers for the Planet” website.

National curriculum

At present all maintained schools in England must teach the national curriculum to pupils. The curriculum is defined in the 2002 act and applies to pupils aged 5–16 years. It is divided into different key stages with different subjects stipulated depending on a pupil’s age/key stage.

In addition to requiring certain subjects such as maths and English to be taught, the curriculum also includes other requirements. For example, at primary level (5–11 years) students must receive a programme of relationships education, while secondary school pupils (11–16 years) must receive a programme of sex and relationships education.

Academies and free schools do not have to follow the national curriculum although they are required to follow a broad and balanced curriculum. In addition, some argue that the curriculum has become an “informal gold standard” for inspections carried out by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted). In practice this can limit the extent to which schools are willing to depart from the curriculum.

Key provisions of the bill

The bill would amend section 78 of the 2002 act to include a general provision for education on the environment and sustainable citizenship. It would require maintained schools and nursery schools to follow a curriculum that “instills an ethos and ability to care for oneself, others and the natural environment, for present and future generations”.

Clause 1 would amend section 80 of the 2002 act to include sustainable citizenship education for secondary school pupils in requirements for the curriculum; the bill would also require the secretary of state to supply guidance on this education.

The bill stipulates that the secretary of state’s guidance must ensure that pupils learn about the impact of human behaviour on the natural environment and the impact of the natural environment on human wellbeing. In addition, the guidance must seek to ensure that pupils have opportunities to develop:

  • skills to protect and restore the natural environment; and
  • skills to measure the impact of their actions on the natural environment.

The bill would also amend the definition of citizenship, currently a foundation subject in the curriculum for pupils in key stage 3 (pupils aged 11–14 in years 7–9) and key stage 4 (pupils aged 14–16 in years 10–11).

The new definition would require that citizenship education “includes programmes of study that encourage learning to protect and restore the natural environment for present and future generations, including but not limited to climate change considerations”.

Why has the bill been introduced?

In late 2018, a speech by Greta Thunberg, the environmental activist, to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 24) went viral. Since then the involvement of schoolchildren in climate change protests and climate action has prompted several commentators to emphasise the leading role that greater environmental awareness in education could have.

In February 2020, students from Teach the Future, a campaign group run by secondary and tertiary education students, attended a parliamentary reception. The event aimed at highlighting their desire for the education system to be around the climate change and what they described as “the climate emergency and ecological crisis”. They produced a draft Climate Emergency Education Act which they argued would achieve this aim. They also gave evidence about their aims to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee in April 2021.

In its September 2020 report, the Climate Assembly UK recommended that climate change be made a compulsory subject in schools. The assembly was the first UK-wide citizens’ assembly on climate change and was commissioned by six House of Commons committees. The assembly gave evidence about its findings to the BEIS committee on 15 June 2021.

What is the Government doing?

In May 2021, in response to a parliamentary question about funding for environmental education in schools, schools minister Nick Gibb noted the importance of children being taught about the environment. In his answer, Mr Gibb highlighted several ways in which pupils in key stages 1–4 are taught about the environment in different subjects.

In the same month, during a statement Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson said:

We recognise how important it is that young people have a good understanding of climate change. That is why we are looking at bringing forward a natural history GCSE, which will be very important in both learning the subject and teaching it.

Responding to the climate change protests seen in 2019, the Labour party argued that climate change should be a core element of the school curriculum, although the Government has countered that climate change is already included in several places in the curriculum.

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This article was updated on 7 July 2021 to include a link to a paper on the bill by Lord Knight.

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay.