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Understanding environmental education in secondary schools

In 2014 environmental education was removed as an explicit value underpinning the English National Curriculum. This significant, yet under-reported policy change has left environmental education to schools and subject leaders, primarily in Geography and Science, to decide how, when and if, it should be taught. However, with mounting evidence that humanity’s ecological trajectory is unsustainable, a socially just education arguably must ensure that all future generations are able to participate in debates and make informed choices concerning environmental risks and challenges.

This project explored the impact of the curriculum changes on the current state of environmental education provision across secondary schools in England through an analysis of discourse of environmental education-related policies and texts, and the views of teachers and senior staff at learned societies.


The research objectives were:

  • To map the state of environmental education in English secondary schools
  • To collect and collate positions on, and guidance for, environmental education as viewed by teachers and learned societies
  • To discursively analyse the construction of environmental education within policy documents, subject materials and the views of teachers and professionals in the field
  • To develop a set of theoretically-informed principles for guidance for future environmental education curriculum policy and practice in English secondary schools.

Summary of Findings

The Policy Perspective

The provision of environmental education in formal schooling is weakly supported by national policies. There is currently a lack of intention or ideological vision for environmental education explicitly articulated in England’s education policy.

Report 1 recommendations:

  • The government should establish a coherent national policy which sets out a vision for environmental education in secondary schools. The policy would shape future National Curriculum reforms and national assessments
  • The national policy should recognise the multiple dimensions of environmental education (e.g. about, in and for the environment) and ensure that all dimensions are given equal footing throughout a student’s school career
  • Young people should be given the opportunity to think broadly about local and global environmental issues and encouraged to develop a sense of ownership and agency.

Read the first report here.

The Practitioners’ Perspectives

The provision of environmental education in England is complex, contested and circular. Viewed as a broad church, and a discipline which students find ‘interesting’, environmental education encompasses multiple topics and skills. Currently, however, environmental education has no defined home resulting in the subject ‘falling through the gaps’.

Report 2 recommendations:

  • Environmental education should be recognised in future Ofsted’s school inspection framework
  • Effective environmental education needs to encompass equal opportunities for environmental activism, subject acquisition, and skill development
  • Environmental education should be recognised in the Teachers’ Standards
  • Examination boards need to be encouraged to development and promote assessment procedures that capture equally environmental education’s three underpinning values: social responsibility/activism in the environment, knowledge about the environment and skills for the environment
  • Senior leaders need to be encouraged to include environmental responsibility and activism in their mission statement/school aim and school operations policies and practices.

Read the second report here.

Project status: Completed

Principal Investigator



Funding Body: British Academy

Amount: £10,000

Period: March 2017 - January 2019