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Understanding Environmental Education in Secondary Schools in England

How does teaching in the UK prepare students for the study of the environmental factors that lead to climate change?

People in a group outdoors
A group learning about outdoor education

How does teaching in the UK prepare students for the study of the environmental factors that lead to climate change? The report “Understanding Environmental Education in secondary schools in England” presents a review by experienced teachers, subject association and learned society staff, and those involved more widely in the environmental education sector.

The research carried out by Dr Melissa Glackin and Dr Heather King from the King’s College London Environmental Education Research Group, was funded by a British Academy / Leverhulme Small Research Grant. The report responds to recent curriculum and assessment reforms in England which resulted in the removal of environmental education as one of four core pillars underpinning the National Curriculum (Martin et al., 2015).

The report is timely, its release coinciding with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (8th October 2018) which demonstrated the grave current climate change situation, with the consequences of 1°C of global warming already evident in more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice.

The report found that the provision of environmental education in England is complex, contested and circular.  Currently, environmental education has no defined home resulting in the subject ‘falling through the gaps’. Coverage is patchy, and the quantity and quality of environmental education is dependent on the teachers’ own beliefs and whether the students study geography at KS4 (14-16 years). Environmental education content straddles geography and science departments with no single department having a clear overview of, or responsibility for, students’ exposure to a coherent education about, in and for the environment.

The review also found that there is a mismatch between what teachers see as the potential for environmental education – a hook for students, an opportunity to teach 21st century skills, and a vehicle for enabling community and environmental activism – and the current curriculum focus perceived as subject acquisition. Negative attitudes may be further heightened by environmental education content being frequently pitched at a global/systemic level and removed from the local and personal. In other words what can students do in their own lives to protect the environment for their future and generations to come? Given the gaps and mismatches in provision and responsibility, Glackin and King suggest that attention needs to be turned to ensuring schools are supported to develop citizens who have the knowledge, skills and conviction to positively respond to future global and local environmental issues impacting communities and our ecosystems. 

Examination boards also must shoulder some of the responsibility to ensure students are fully educated in environmental issues, including the importance of taking action to mitigate the problems originating from human activity. Collectively these measures are only a start but constitute a vital first step.

The reports can be read in full at:

Report 1: Policy Perspectives

Report 2: The Practitioners' Perspectives

Read more about the Understanding Environmental Education project.