Sustainability and Climate Change (National Curriculum) — [Nusrat Ghani in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 27th October 2021.

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Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden 9:30 am, 27th October 2021

Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House, or at home. Please give each other and members of staff room when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East 9:31 am, 27th October 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the inclusion of sustainability and climate change in the national curriculum.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ghani. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I also thank colleagues for being present, including those who have long been staunch advocates on the issue of climate and ecology, and particularly the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne.

To stop runaway climate change, we have to reduce our emissions by half every decade. The world needs to reach net zero by 2050. That requires sustained political pressure on our leaders and huge changes to every part of our economy—changes that the Climate Change Committee has described as

“unprecedented in their overall scale”.

It requires that we build an economy based on clean energy, creating secure, sustainable jobs through investment in green industry, transitioning away from sectors with high emissions, and restoring our natural world. It requires a public who are informed and knowledgeable about the climate, and a shift in emphasis when it comes to the skills that are valued and taught in our society. Does the Minister agree that teaching students knowledge and practical skills relating to climate change and green technology is a key component in transitioning to a low-carbon society?

Even if the world is on track to limit the overall rise in temperature to 1.5°—that is a big if—there will still be repercussions for us environmentally, socially and economically. The climate crisis is already here, and we must be prepared to adapt and mitigate its effects in our changing world. A child who started primary school last month will not yet have turned 35 in 2050— the year in which the Government intend to reach net zero carbon emissions—but our current education system does not acknowledge how different our society will be by then, and it will not equip that child with the tools they will need to live and work in it. As Greta Thunberg said when people questioned why she was not at school and was instead striking for the climate,

“Why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more”?

If our education system is not preparing and empowering young people to help prevent climate change and deal with its consequences, it is failing them. As it stands, climate change barely features on the national curriculum. It is confined to small parts of science GCSE, or optional subjects such as horticulture and environmental science, which few institutions have the financial capacity to host. Due to academisation of our education system, many schools are also not required to teach climate change directly.

We need to put climate change at the heart of education. In practice, this would mean that properly taught climate change education would be integrated into subject areas across the curriculum—not just physics, chemistry and geography, but economics, history, arts and food technology. It would be integrated into vocational training courses as well, with plumbing courses teaching how to install low-carbon heating systems and catering colleges covering sustainable diets. Climate change would be a thread woven into every part of our education system, just as it impacts every part of our lives.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene so early in her remarks, but she has already got to the crux of the issue. I congratulate her on securing the debate and on her role on the Environmental Audit Committee, where she has made a significant contribution, not least to the report on green jobs that we published on Monday. The recommendation in paragraph 102 of that report specifically addresses the point she makes, stating that we need to embed environmental sustainability, including it across all subjects in primary and secondary schools and, obviously, in the vocational curriculum.

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and wholeheartedly agree with his comments. I again thank him for all the work he has done as the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee in progressing not just this issue but the need for green jobs across society and in all our communities.

The UN is championing the need for climate education in the national curriculum. Also firmly on board are all the major teaching unions, but at the forefront of this campaign is the youth climate strike movement, some members of which are here today. They have made climate education a clear key demand of their campaign. I thank Scarlett, Yasmin, Charlie, Tess and Stella who have joined us from Teach the Future. They have been driving this debate forward and are of the generation—my generation—that forced our Parliament to declare a climate and ecological emergency almost two and a half years ago.

These young people are still in school, too young to vote or stand for elections, but they have led the way in driving the climate crisis up the political agenda. They have shown this House how change is won. As Parliament’s youngest MP, I feel pride in being part of their generation and a particular responsibility to represent them, but they need representation from the whole House. For decades, huge corporations have polluted our planet with impunity, and the Governments of previous generations have let them off far too lightly. That must end. My generation, young people, and those yet to be born will have to deal with and live with the consequences.

Does the Minister agree that the very least older generations can do is equip young people with the skills they need to clean up the mess that was not of their making? Will the Minister find time to meet with me and the school students here today to discuss the campaign and how we can progress it through Government?

Next week we will host world leaders at COP26. This is our last and best chance of stopping runaway climate change. I want us to show the world that we are serious, that we are listening to young people’s calls, and that we are not just inspired by them but inspired to act.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 9:37 am, 27th October 2021

I thank the hon. Lady. I am sorry I cannot see which constituency she represents, but I appreciate the opportunity to speak in the debate.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I thank Nadia Whittome. That is a great part of the world. When you live in west Cornwall, you do not travel much beyond London, unless you have to.

It is great to be able to speak in this debate, not least because schools in Cornwall are brilliant at raising awareness of climate change and the harm we do to our planet. I have received thousands of letters from schoolchildren setting out their concerns and asking pertinent questions about my commitment to this critical issue. When I was elected, I made myself a perhaps foolish promise that I would always write personally and individually to every child from whom I received a letter. I may regret that because it is a massive task, but well worth doing, because each letter contains real examples of why those children care about climate change.

I have visited many of the amazing schools across Cornwall. Mullion School introduced me to its eco-club and its technology to monitor the ice caps and what is happening in the coldest parts of our world, which are unfortunately heating up. Mounts Bay Academy’s tree-planting, polytunnel and plastic-free efforts have transformed the thinking in schools and homes. Nancledra school invited me very early on in 2016 to its eco-fair. Trythall school, where my children go, invited me to see the work it was doing with members of Women’s Institutes to make the school and their homes more environmentally friendly. Nearly all schools across my constituency have invited me to see their efforts to reduce plastic waste. We in Cornwall are fortunate to have Surfers Against Sewage, who do a great job with schools, and many schools around the country are following that example. Marazion School has actually taken me on beach cleans, which is a great joy, because the children are so much nearer to the stuff they are picking up than we are. As we get older, picking up these little plastic things becomes a challenge, so I recommend that my children go and clean up the waste we have made. I am joking. I am going to get shot in a minute.

The schools working with the Woodland Trust in my constituency have done a great job and planted thousands of trees in their grounds. Prior to the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, which many will remember, several schools in the area took the opportunity to put pressure not only on me as the local MP and other Cornish MPs, but on our Government and world leaders to take this more seriously, to accelerate action and to prepare properly for COP26.

We had a head start in our schools because of the way they have engaged our children in the need to decarbonise and to restore nature, but I want to talk about why that is important. My daughter, who is five, started school properly in September. If things go as planned, when she leaves formal education all new cars will be electric, homes will be powered by wind and heated by air; bottle deposit schemes will have replaced the the need for parents to give their children pocket money, the countryside will look and feel different, and the job opportunities will be very different. That is why we need to take seriously the need to teach about climate change and how to mitigate it formally in our classrooms.

As I have demonstrated in my constituency examples, teachers in Cornwall are already embracing with enthusiasm teaching about the impact of climate change, but I recognise that climate education needs to be extended, as Teach for the Future said, to include knowledge about how we abate the climate emergency and ecological crisis, how to deliver climate justice, and how to support students dealing with eco and climate anxiety. That is important, because I saw the worry on the faces of children I met when the school strikes were taking place. Climate education will reduce anxiety, as students will be empowered with information to tackle the problem.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate my hon. Friend Nadia Whittome—on securing this debate. Sorry, that was a Freudian slip: everywhere is Norwich to me. The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech, but does he agree that, just as we should teach our children about the climate crisis and its onset, we should do so in schools and classrooms that are not belching out carbon at the same time? Is it not critical that this Government get on top of that and decarbonise the education estate by 2030 at the latest?

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I agree, and I welcome the intervention. When I was on the Environmental Audit Committee, we looked at various plans to decarbonise the public estate by 2032. That is a massive challenge and hugely expensive, but it is right that we should prioritise the places where our children learn. We know that in many places, our school estates are not fit for purpose in terms of the best learning experience, let alone the right thing for the environment. That is just one of the many significant challenges we face as we grapple with this vital issue.

Education on climate change is also about the opportunities available for the future. Cornwall offers a particular opportunity for our national and global efforts to decarbonise and switch to renewable ways of living. We have one of the world’s most important supplies of lithium. We have copper and tin-rich rock beneath our homes. In my constituency, we are led to believe, we have the third-richest tin and copper mine in the world. We have geothermal possibilities, allowing us to extract heat from the ground, and we are doing that at Jubilee Pool in Penzance. We are leaders in renewable energy and we produce some of the most sustainable food crops, dairy and meat. We have some of the most exciting potential for carbon sequestration on land and on the ocean floor, and we have the potential for a large but sustainable fishing fleet. Lack of education in schools on this presents a challenge to our ambitions.

Education should address how we shift to a greener way of living without costing the Earth. There is an interesting debate taking place in Cornwall, because as we consider extracting copper and tin once again and extracting lithium from dormant mines, and at geothermal, we are trying to understand whether the immediate environmental impact of carrying out this important work is worth the result of extracting the minerals that we need in all our devices and in renewable-energy batteries, and so on. There is a real argument that we need the education and the learning in our schools, as well as among the public, about the environmental impact of digging up the ground. What exactly is it? Is it worth it? Or is it better—I say this tongue in cheek—to just get things from China or elsewhere, where we have no control over how the stuff is extracted? Education in schools could really help understanding of how we balance getting to a greener living with the impact that we have to spend right now.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Transport)

The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. I had a debate on this in December 2017, and the response I got from the Minister was very bitty, saying “You learn a little about this in citizenship, a little bit in science, a bit in geography, and when T-levels come on board, they might have a bit.” Is the hon. Member arguing that there ought to be a GCSE in environmental science, or environmental studies, or whatever he would wish to call it? Making this a strong part of the curriculum, rather than popping up here and there and not having that overview, is the way forward.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

Again, that is a great intervention. I met with the Secretary of State and eight head teachers from my constituency a couple of years ago, and we had that very discussion about how we could actually do this in schools. Interestingly, half of the heads said, “Let’s just use what we have now to get it through every part of our education and curriculum,” and the other half said “No, we need a specific resource and tool to be able to teach it,” as the hon. Lady said, potentially as a GCSE.

I am not an education expert, although I have three children going through the system at the moment. I would argue that, particularly in primary school, we should just look at every pot of learning and attach it to how we live on the planet. The connection is then how we care for the planet. We can do that in everything we teach in primary school. In secondary school, I think there should be an opportunity to continue that, but also the opportunity for students to learn and to take a particular interest.

I am trying to demonstrate that this is about the skills need across the country to deliver what we have committed to, and that must start with preparing children and young people for the work they will do when they leave. Education in schools should address the link between our demands and the carbon in the supply chain. We often talk about wanting to take the necessary measures in our own lives to reduce our carbon footprints but we quickly find that we go and order stuff online without necessarily knowing where it comes from or the carbon footprint attached to that item. If we helped our young people to understand that better, when they look at their careers, they will look at how they can be involved in the food chain, in clothing and in all of those things that we need, but where carbon miles can be reduced.

I appreciate that you are trying to get me to shut up, Ms Ghani; I will be very quick now. We must look at what skills are needed to meet the higher skilled job opportunities in renewable energy, construction, mining, technology, agriculture and environmental and marine management. A tip from a meeting I went to this morning is that if we want our children to have great careers, we should send them down the heat engineer route. We have an opportunity, not just to enable our young people to deal with the great challenges facing them as they grow up and the challenges we should be addressing now, but to seize the opportunity, and to have the high-paid, high-skill jobs that we talk about. That means that the choices we make to do the right thing for the planet are actually choices that are good for us.

Choices in the interests of the environment are rarely negative or sacrificial choices set against their positive aspects, such as better homes, healthier air, high-skilled jobs, and so on. This is a timely debate. It is critical to get this right. I support getting education in the curriculum across every school, so that every child is equipped to live, flourish, and embrace the world that we have been given, which we are privileged to have.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

To ensure that we can incorporate all speakers, could they please be mindful of keeping their speeches to around five minutes?

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:49 am, 27th October 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ghani. It is fantastic that my hon. Friend Nadia Whittome has secured the debate. Although she is a Gen Z-er and we are millennials, and our two generations disagree on many things, what unites us is our passion for the environment. Certainly, we millennials have been very inspired by Gen Z pushing forward this agenda.

In the House last week, I spoke about the Sheffield Hallam climate manifesto, which was a product of months of meetings with my constituents. We brought together campaigners, trade unionists, experts and people from across the constituency to outline measures to tackle the climate emergency and what the UK should ask for in the COP26 negotiations. In our discussions it was all too clear that, although some understood the importance and scale of the climate emergency, they were not sure about what action should be taken and felt powerlessness to effect the change they know we need.

That feeling of powerlessness reflects the remoteness of political institutions such as COP26 from people up and down the country who want more robust action on the climate emergency. It also reflects a gulf between the desire to do something and the knowledge of what to do. The same goes for young people: 2.5 million seven to 17-year-old Britons want increased teaching on the climate crisis in schools. The Institution of Engineering and Technology found recently that 68% of young people would like to work in green jobs, but 71% said that they lacked knowledge about those careers, which could stop them pursuing one.

That is a problem for our democracy but it is one that we can help to fix through our education system. The climate crisis is not going away, and if the purpose of our school system is, as a Labour Prime Minister once said,

“to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society”, it is right that we educate them about it through the national curriculum. I pay tribute to organisations like Hope for the Future, which works with schools in my constituency and beyond, for their vital work to engage young people and teach them about the climate emergency and democracy.

It is our responsibility to educate our young people about the collective challenges we face, but it should also be said that had it not been for young people we would be less aware of these issues. Often, young people have been the educators. From Greta Thunberg and the youth climate strikers to youth-led organisations such as Teach the Future, all provide excellent examples of the lively and constructive contribution that young people continue to make to the debate.

Given how young people have often led the discussion, it is appropriate not only to put the climate emergency on the national curriculum, but to ensure that it is part of lifelong learning curricula too. All too often, young people are leading the way while adults struggle to understand the full extent of the crisis and the opportunities offered by green jobs. A just transition to net zero that puts our communities, not a handful of elite decision makers, at the centre of our response means raising the general level of education about the climate emergency. Making it part of our national curriculum is fundamentally a democratic demand, which millions of young people are making. We should all listen to them.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 9:53 am, 27th October 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Ms Ghani. I, too, congratulate Nadia Whittome on securing this really important debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to it.

This topic has long been very close to my heart. In March 2013, I tabled an early-day motion to oppose the Government’s plan at that time to remove climate change from the national curriculum guidelines for key stages 1 to 3. That EDM cited the former chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David King, who maintained that the exclusion of such issues represents an abdication of our duty to future generations. It is with that duty to current and future generations in mind that I will make the case for not just defending and strengthening the existing curriculum but, as others have argued for, going further, particularly with a natural history GCSE.

Lots of the focus so far this morning has, understandably, been on the climate. I will focus a little more on nature. Nearly half of all species in Britain are in decline. Species vital to our survival, such as the bee, are in catastrophic decline. In the past decade alone, we have lost a quarter of our hedgehogs and 30% of my favourite birds, swifts. How many people know that a single swift can fly up to 4 million miles in its life? How extraordinary is that? It can stay on the wing for two years; it does everything on the wing until it stops to mate and start a family. I could wax lyrical about the swift for the rest of my time, but I will not. It is that kind of love of nature that is so crucial for young people, both in its own right and because, as the wonderful writer Richard Louv said, “We won’t protect what we don’t love and we won’t love what we don’t know”. Here is an opportunity to really get to love the nature that we have around us.

The scale of the destruction of our wildlife is terrifying, and it is accelerating. Scientists warn that the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth is happening right now, bringing with it the real risk of a collapse of civilisation. A new GCSE in natural history, first proposed by the writer and naturalist, Mary Colwell, in 2011, will clearly not turn that around on its own, but it is a start.

I have quoted Richard Louv’s words, but many children today do not necessarily know nature. A survey in 2018 found that more than half of UK children are unable to identify a stinging nettle, and earlier research showed that nearly 10% had not visited a park, a forest or a beach for 12 months or more. With half of all species in the UK in moderate or serious decline, there is a real danger that many of the next generation will grow up unable to recognise the wildlife on our doorsteps until it is gone, so there is no doubt in my mind that bringing climate and natural history to the school curriculum is long overdue.

At the same time, there is a growing awareness of the nature and climate crises among many children and young people and I believe that many of them would seize this opportunity if it was provided on the curriculum. Indeed, the hugely inspiring youth climate strikers are demanding that the education system is reformed so that every child can learn about the urgency, severity and scientific basis for the climate emergency, with a whole-school approach that mainstreams that through education. I do not see any contradiction between, on the one hand, mainstreaming this through all subjects on the curriculum and, at the same time, having a dedicated GCSE in natural history. I think those two things are complementary.

The early feedback from teachers to a worked-up proposal from the examination board, OCR is full of enthusiasm. There is interest from schools in remote rural areas and inner cities, as well as from schools with cultural backgrounds. Studying natural history is not about a sentimental preoccupation with a bucolic past; it is about engaging with the realities of an environment under intense pressure, how different species are responding and how nature plays out in urban settings, so it is hugely welcome that the Department for Education is considering that as an option. I urge it to work with us to make that a reality.

When the natural world on which we depend is facing such catastrophic loss, it is vital that the school curriculum gives young people the tools to understand what is happening so that we can act before it is too late. The OCR examination board has developed a course focusing on field study that also includes an exploration of our relationship with nature and how it has shaped our culture, art, literature and music. It would foster scientific, practical and emotional connections to the natural world and thus provide a unique contribution to the GCSE offering. It would teach children to name, record, monitor and collect data on the wildlife all around them and relate that wildlife to the wider countryside and internationally. It will teach vital field skills on how to process and evaluate data. In short, it will teach young people to be naturalists.

Earlier this year at the launch of Professor Dasgupta’s review on the contribution of nature to global economies, he ended with a plea to put nature into the heart of education and he highlighted the need for naturalists of the future. Re-engaging future generations with the natural world has never felt more important. As the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne, said, that Committee has also unanimously supported the idea of a far greater focus on climate and nature education, including the GCSE.

In this crucial year of COP15 on biological diversity and, of course, COP26 on climate change, as Mary Colwell said:

“The establishment of a GCSE in natural history is far more than just another subject to choose. It signals an intent to take the nature of Britain seriously and to put into practice what we believe to be the right way to live on this earth, and this could inspire others to do the same.”

I urge the Minister to respond favourably to our points this morning. This really is a cross-party priority, as he can see, that can only bring about positive outcomes. There is huge enthusiasm for this from young people and schools; all we are waiting for is a green light from the Government. I urge the Minister to give it to us.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

I do not doubt that if you called for a debate on the swift, that would be just as well attended.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North 9:59 am, 27th October 2021

I congratulate my hon. Friend Nadia Whittome on securing this debate. I also congratulate the young people who made sure it happened—Scarlett Westbrook and others who are here today. They invited us to Old Palace Yard yesterday to be photographed alongside banners calling for climate education in our schools. The fact that demand is coming from young people in schools who want to green their own buildings and ensure that school buildings are sustainable is something we should bear in mind, because the demand for better climate education from young people is very powerful indeed.

I represent a small, highly urbanised constituency. Geographically it is probably the smallest constituency in the country, and probably one of the most densely populated, if not the most densely populated. That means environmental concerns are more difficult than in an area where there is obviously a greater interaction with the natural world and nature. I am impressed with the number of teachers in the community who are absolutely determined to make sure our young people are brought up to understand the natural world and their interactions with it. I pay an enormous compliment to my local authority, Islington Council, and the schools for the work that they do to ensure that there are gardening projects in every school, however small the space, and that all our young people get a chance to go to parks and on school journeys to begin to understand their interaction with nature.

Although I understand the point of the debate in ensuring there is a proper place in the curriculum for climate education, I do not want us to just promote another tick-box exercise where we say, “We will put this, this and this into the curriculum, and we will tick that box so that that bit is done.” It would be yet another subject alongside, in the case of secondary schools, science, economics and everything else. The philosophy around our interactions with the natural world, nature and the environment is more important. If, by putting something in the national curriculum, we start to change the mindset in those that plan education, we will have done a very good job indeed.

I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate, he will recognise the need to significantly change the way in which our primary schools, secondary schools, colleges and universities approach the natural world and the environment, and that energy policy, transport policy, food policies and so on—every issue—are debated in relation to the effect on the natural world and the environment in which we live. Too many of our young people are brought up with the idea that everything is consumable and that what happens in the environment and the rest of the world simply does not matter; that is all somewhere else. There is a huge divide between the environmentally conscious within our society and what, frankly, probably the majority think about it. They are vaguely in favour of a better world and environment, but they do not see that they have a role to play within it. It is about empowering young people in a thought process that will bring about a better education system.

I try to visit every primary school in my constituency once a year. Over the years the discussions about the environment have changed dramatically. I remember about 10 or 15 years ago giving a year 6 group what I thought was an absolutely brilliant talk about the environment. After a while, they began to yawn and look out the window. One boy said, “Okay, sir, what is the best and most important animal in the world?” I thought, “There’s a question,” and said, “Well, the earthworm.” He said, “What did you say the earthworm for?” I said, “Without earthworms, the world would be covered in concrete.” We then got into a discussion about insects, insect life and biodiversity, and the children became interested and excited by that, whereas if I had given the lecture that we are all accustomed to giving or hearing, that does not work. The good news is that I went to the same school last year or the year before, and they gave me a lecture on global warming, CO2, environmental changes and everything else, as part of year 5 teaching year 6 how to understand the environment. The school has achieved massive advances, including growing projects in the school. The subject can be made interesting and exciting.

Bringing up children in an environment in which they understand human interaction with the natural world, the need to maintain biodiversity and how things grow is very important. In my area, probably two thirds of children live in flats. They have no access to open space at all. Many do not even have a balcony. It is very easy for us to say, “Get involved in gardening,” but if someone is in a third-floor flat above a shop in private rented accommodation with no open space whatsoever, it is not so simple. It requires a superhuman effort from teachers and the rest of the community to involve children. I hope when the Minister replies, he will be able to give us some news on the way in which schools will be encouraged to have growing and gardening projects in their schools, to help children get involved and get their hands mucky, playing around with the earth and all the rest of it. Those key early formative years are so important in our understanding of the natural world.

There is so much inspiration that comes from interaction with nature, animal life and poetry and so much else. Caroline Lucas was just talking about the beautiful, wonderful swift. If we hunt through references in poetry, it is the skylark that appears most often. Sadly, if we went to many schools and asked children to identify particular birds, they would not know what we were talking about. Birds such as the sparrow, which used to be so common, have disappeared, and many children are completely unable to identify any bird or animal whatsoever.

I had the joy of growing up in the countryside. Children used to talk about the birds they had seen that weekend. They talked about them with real love and affection. This is about inspiring our children and giving them that space. I hope that this debate takes inspiration from the young people that have done so much and moves forward into changing not just the curriculum but the mindset in the curriculum about our natural world. If we do not interact with and understand our relationship with nature, the future is going to be pretty grim, with more pollution, more damage to people’s lives and the loss of our natural world.

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Labour, Salford and Eccles 10:07 am, 27th October 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I thank my hon. Friend Nadia Whittome for securing this important debate. I also thank Teach the Future for its superb campaigning work on this issue, and the young people who are here today and are not only involved with Teach the Future, but were instrumental in the school strikes of a few years ago, which led Parliament to declare a climate and ecological emergency.

I am sure all hon. Members here today are aware that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report argues that we need a code red response to a code red emergency. That response should be reflected not only in our approach to decarbonising industry, energy use and developing a sustainable economy, but in our approach to climate change and sustainability, and the skills needed for the new future we deserve must be embedded in our education system. Sadly, however, the report card on climate education that Education International has just produced, based on its analysis of 73 updated nationally determined contributions presented for COP26, has found that no country is doing enough to meet the criteria, and the UK comes in 42nd out of 73.

As the country leading COP26—the most pivotal and important conference of the parties so far—that is not good enough, especially when the UK is still off track on meeting many of its carbon targets and the amount of investment pledged to decarbonise our economy so far is pitiful in comparison to many other industrial nations. Sadly, only last week the Government were mired in controversy after opposing an amendment to the Environment Bill that would have restricted the pumping of raw sewage into our water systems. That does not give the impression of a Government that is serious about tackling the climate and ecological emergency. However, we have cross-party consensus today, and the Minister can do his part in changing that perception.

As the Minister may know, education unions wrote to the Education Secretary last week and requested that he make four key announcements before the COP. First, they called for a comprehensive review of the entire curriculum, so that it is preparing and mobilising our whole system for a sustainable future. Secondly, as an interim measure, the Government should support the private Member’s Bill of Lord Knight of Weymouth, which would restore sustainability as a pillar of the curriculum. Thirdly, they called for a comprehensive plan to decarbonise the entire school estate by 2030 as part of an overdue refurbishment and repair programme. Finally, a detailed policy on green travel for students, staff and parents should be developed.

As the Minister knows, it is the next generation who will bear the brutal costs of inaction on climate change. We have a moral duty to secure their future and, as a nation, to lead the world at COP26. I am sure that the Minister agrees, and I hope he will implement the requests I have set out as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 10:11 am, 27th October 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate Nadia Whittome on securing the debate. As hon. Members have said, when I tour schools in my constituency and do Q&A sessions, the No. 1 topic that I am quizzed about is the environment—whether that is climate, biodiversity or action on waste. In fact, when I visited St James’s Catholic Primary School in Twickenham two weeks ago, every single question was on this topic—to the point where I was struggling to answer some of them, so I think climate education needs to start with me alongside pupils and in the curriculum.

As Derek Thomas said, I also get lots of correspondence from schoolchildren on the subject of the environment, which we all have to answer and sometimes struggle to answer. There is a keen interest there. They are desperate to know more and to know how to take action to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises. Yet, we know that 75% of teachers feel ill-equipped to deliver that education and knowledge, so there is a serious training gap. As has been said, this is the single biggest issue facing all of us, but particularly for our children and young people who will have to live with the consequences of our actions today long after we have gone. It will be a bigger crisis for them over the next 10 years than the pandemic we are currently going through.

We know the majority of the public want to see more in the curriculum on climate change and the environment. I recently ran a local petition on my website about making climate education a stand-alone subject. We can have a discussion on whether it should stand alone, but just locally I got over 300 signatures, so there is definitely a desire out there. We have heard that the UN has asked that climate change education plays a central role in updated nationally determined contributions in terms of the Paris agreement pledges. Now we are going into COP26, so I hope we will see new pledges on climate change education.

I am concerned that there is a lot of eco-anxiety among young people. We need to move to empowering and equipping them to channel that concern and energy in a positive way, so they are not just learning about the causes, but thinking about the mitigations. That is why education is so important: it will equip them for the jobs of the future and help them come up with innovations to tackle the challenges of the future.

As I touched on already, we can talk about whether there is a sustainability thread running through everything and whether we have a stand-alone subject or a stand-alone GCSE. Children starting secondary school are already asking this. One of the first questions that the daughter of one of my members of staff asked was, “Can I take a climate change GCSE?” We should be offering that. Climate change education is split across science and geography, but fewer than 50% of pupils are taking geography GCSE, so a core part of that curriculum is not being taught to many young people. The Liberal Democrats have talked about having a curriculum for life taught in schools, with climate change being part of that. These are details to discuss, but we are all united in saying that this needs to be a core part of the curriculum.

I will end by saying that alongside the educational piece, it is important to talk about the experiential side of climate and biodiversity education. The hon. Member for St Ives talked about the beauty of Cornwall; when someone is out in a rural area like that they are surrounded by it. However, as we have heard, if someone lives in inner-city or urban areas, or even in suburban constituencies like mine where we have beautiful Royal Parks, there are pockets of deprivation and dense housing where young people do not necessarily go out and enjoy those parks—and certainly do not get out to the countryside.

A Natural England survey last year showed the income and racial inequalities in terms of access to the natural environment. As with so many other things, that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. We know that fewer people from ethnic minorities and fewer people from lower income backgrounds have managed to get access to outside space. My hon. Friend Tim Farron has been campaigning for a nature premium for schools to boost outdoor education. There are mental wellbeing benefits, there are physical wellbeing benefits, and there are educational benefits, so we need a joined-up approach to climate education in the curriculum. I hope the Minister will respond positively given the cross-party consensus. This needs to go beyond COP26; it is great that we are having these discussions now, but we need long-term commitment and action.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North 10:16 am, 27th October 2021

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nadia Whittome on the way she introduced this debate and on her good fortune in securing it. I also congratulate young people—not just the young people that are here, but young people everywhere, in that they are not angrier. They seem remarkably good-humoured, yet they should be extremely angry with the way that successive generations have left them a world that they are going to have to cope with. The problems that we have created are the problems that they will have to deal with. Certainly, if I look back to the things that angered me when I was in my teens and early 20s, had I been facing the sort of climate and environmental catastrophe that young people now are facing, I think I would have been even angrier than I was then.

What is good is that this debate has been cross-party and consensual. Nobody has stood up and said that there no need for us to teach about climate as an integral part of the curriculum. I echo what my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn said about the need for this to be holistic and to become an integrated way of teaching, not just a tick-box exercise within schools. It is vital that the relevance to people’s lives is made apparent.

Today we have the Budget, and I want to look to one element of hope, which is that the Treasury has finally come up with the Dasgupta review. This is an economic review commissioned by the Treasury to look into the integration of biodiversity and the natural world with economics—something that is long overdue. The report speaks about the way that we treat the environment as an “asset management problem”. What is perhaps most extraordinary about the Dasgupta review, apart from its length—at 605 pages, it is quite dense, with lots of formulae—is that, as an economist, having gone through all the economics and asset management problems and used all the formulae, he concluded that the oppressing issue was education. It is a Treasury report, yet Dasgupta concluded that the important issue was education: educating our children and educating the public. He talked about education on nature stretching from early years to university, with all universities mandating students to attend a basic course in ecology, and extending it beyond schools to adult workplaces and organisations, as everyone needs to recognise their role in restoring the natural world, and about a new GCSE in natural history, which was first proposed way back in 2012.

We must not treat the need for education about climate and the environment as separate from everything else the Government do. If it is seen in the Treasury as a driving force of our economy, then that is how we, as politicians, should regard it. That is why it is so important to integrate it into all that we do.

Philip Dunne—who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East said, has guided the Environmental Audit Committee so brilliantly as its Chairman—has said that the Government have not yet stepped up to the plate in terms of the necessary skills. We know that the Government’s 25-year environment plan and the measures in the Environment Bill will need much greater ecological expertise at a local authority level. Biodiversity net gain for new developments and the creation of local nature recovery networks are good steps, but they cannot be delivered without the necessary in-house ecological expertise.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for nature, I wrote earlier this year to all local council chief executives to ask for their assessment of their in-house ecological expertise. I am afraid that, based on the overwhelming response we received, local authority leaders do not believe they can deliver on the Government’s ambitions. The situation has not changed significantly since 2013, when a study by the Association of Local Government Ecologists, ALGE, found that only one in three councils had access to the necessary expertise.

We need to develop the education and skills necessary for that expertise. The Government cannot impose obligations on local authorities and in the planning system without the capacity to deliver on those targets. If we do not train the necessary people, those targets will be meaningless and we will fail. It is vital that we see education as the pump-priming part in the delivery of the targets set in the Environment Bill and the net zero strategy.

In the Government’s response to the Dasgupta review, they mentioned the newly established sustainability and climate change unit under the Department for Education. However, as the chairman of the EAC said, the Committee’s latest inquiry on green jobs was quite clear that the Government are not grappling with the skills gap needed to achieve net zero. I hope the Minister prioritises the new unit and that it will be able to bridge the gap between the skills shortage and the demand, including through education and retraining of the current workforce, who will be affected by the changes, and where we need a just transition.

I cannot pass up the opportunity to meet the swift mentioned by Caroline Lucas and the skylark that my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North mentioned, and to raise them with an Arctic tern, which of course flies from the Arctic summer to the Antarctic summer. It actually traverses the globe once a year, flying 55,900, and in a lifetime flies many times the distance to the moon and back. It would be good to debate the amazing function of our birdlife and the loss of birdlife that we have seen in this country.

To pick up on something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North said, many of us remember as children being able to go into the countryside and see so many different species. In a sense, we have raised a generation of battery-reared children who have been cosseted and protected, with parents afraid to let their children go out and play on their own. That is a great loss to the world. An environmental premium for schools, as spoken about by Munira Wilson, is a really good idea.

Teach the Future asks for a Government-commissioned review of how the whole English formal education system is preparing students for the climate emergency and ecological crisis, the inclusion of the climate emergency and ecological crisis in teacher training and a new professional teaching qualification, and an English climate emergency education Act. I hope the Minister will respond to those three asks.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

We have the Arctic tern, the skylark and the swift. Mr Jim Shannon, it is over to you now.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:27 am, 27th October 2021

I cannot match the exoticness of any of the three birds that the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) referred to; I am more of a pheasant man, and they do not fly all that far. In all honesty, I not only quite like them but also like eating them; I am unashamedly a rural country sports person and quite enjoy that.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Chair. I thank Nadia Whittome for opening the debate and setting the scene so well. It is a pleasure to see the Minister in his place to respond on this new subject that he has responsibility for. We had a fond working relationship when he was the Minister of State for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Members enjoyed his time there, and I look forward to his time covering this subject matter.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion and I have a clear interest in environmental issues, as I think we all do, which is why we are here to speak in this debate. I receive emails and have conversations on this regularly. Ahead of COP26 next month, this is definitely a debate worthy of discussion. As I have indicated many times, young people—some young people are here today—in my constituency contact me so often on this issue, as others have as well. They look to the future, and the decisions that we make today are important because they will affect them. As a grandfather with five grandchildren, I am conscious of leaving them something they can enjoy and have pleasure in.

COP26 has been at the centre of media discussions in the last few weeks, and we have seen a rise in the number of young people who are passionate about climate change and our world—most notably Greta Thunberg, who I met in the House some years ago. I expect that there are differing opinions on her expression, but she is none the less someone who is passionate about the topic, and that passion cannot be ignored.

We do have some environmental teaching in our curriculum. Although it differs slightly in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the basics are taught. Back home in Northern Ireland, aspects of climate change are taught in both geography and science to children as young as those in key stage 3. This can continue up to and including individual study at A2 level, with a large section dedicated to the study of the environment and the world around us.

With geography, the statutory requirements state that students should investigate the impact of conflict between social, economic and environmental needs both locally and globally through the study of flooding, pollution—very much the subject matter of the last few weeks in this House—climate change and deforestation. In science, the study is focused on the effects of pollution, such as water, air, land and sound, as well as specific measures to improve and protect the environment—for instance, renewable energy, the efficient use of resources and waste minimisation.

We should look at the good things that have happened, for instance on renewable energy, to which this House and the Government are committed. There have been massive advances. I was at an all-party parliamentary group for energy studies event last night. It was good to be reminded of the advances in renewable energies of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We do not talk often enough of the good things we do, and we should do so more.

Many here will hold the opinion that there is not enough in our schools curriculum addressing the issue of climate change. While I can understand that it is a pressing issue, I feel that the focus needs to be on the pass rates of children studying core subjects such as maths and English. It is right that we focus on those subjects, which are essential for all employment. Figures show that in Northern Ireland, 13.3% of pupils on average leave school each year without a maths or English qualification. This has been correlated with geographical and ethnic factors. I believe there is more we can do to ensure that all pupils achieve their full potential through maths, English and science before we consider introducing more intense climate change learning.

I welcome the decision taken by schools to introduce climate change workshops, which are set up once or twice a month for those interested in the study of climate change. Will the Minister say what has been done to ensure that climate change is on the curriculum more regularly in schools? We must ensure that our children are prepared for the world. While some would argue that climate change and the environment are at the forefront, the basics lie with other subjects, which still need attention and will make us focus on climate change issues.

Climate justice, greener schools and learning is where education should start. I thank the Member for Nottingham East for raising the issue. I fully respect her commitment, as the youngest MP, to climate change teaching in our schools. Teach the Future has shown that 68% of pupils want to learn more about the environment, and 70% of teachers say that they have received no training on climate change teaching. There is an issue with green teaching. What has been done to address that?

I urge the Minister to engage with his counterparts in the devolved institutions to assess how climate change can be introduced to a greater extent in our schools, while ensuring that our core subjects are not ignored. I encourage the Minister to bear the issue in mind at COP26. I have always stated that education and our young people are at the forefront of the climate change debate, and we must not fail them in their education and teaching.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Education) 10:34 am, 27th October 2021

I should just say that I am not the shadow Minister on this subject, but the shadow Schools Minister, my hon. Friend Peter Kyle, is on a Bill Committee, which is why I am covering today. I want to thank him and the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Kate Green, for their help in preparing for this debate. I will pass back any points made today, so hon. Members can rest assured that everyone’s comments have been heard and noted.

I thank my hon. Friend Nadia Whittome for securing this important debate, which is also very timely, as everyone has mentioned. I pay tribute to her for the work she has done to highlight the importance of embedding climate change and sustainability in everything we do, including education, and for all the organisational work she has done for this campaign, not least bringing a delegation of young, bright people from the Teach the Future campaign to Parliament yesterday. I am delighted that some of them are in the Public Gallery: Scarlett, Stella, Tess, Yasmin and Charlie are very welcome to Parliament, but we also need them to educate us, as many Members have said during today’s debate.

My hon. Friend made many good points, but I particularly want to pick up on one of them, which was about how the education system is not preparing children for climate change. It is failing them, which is a damning verdict on the education system that we are living with, and of what the future holds for a lot of our children. I also want to take a minute to say that my hon. Friend may be generation Z, she may be the youngest Member of the House, and she only joined in 2019, but we can already see the impact of all the work she has undertaken. When Opposition Members start paying tribute to her for her work on the Environmental Audit Committee—that does not always happen in this House—we realise the strength of her capabilities, so I give her a huge “Well done” for having secured this important debate.

My fellow millennial Member, my hon. Friend Olivia Blake, talked about the importance of teaching not just young people, but adults as well, about climate change and sustainability. That point was echoed by Munira Wilson, who said that a lot of adults do not even know what we are talking about—I know that I could do a crash course on this topic as well.

Turning to the topic at hand, many Members from both sides of the House who spoke today talked about how we need to do more to embed climate change within the curriculum. When I go to my local schools, teachers and school leaders are already aware of that need, and some amazing work is going on around the country to engage with pupils about climate change. However, the onus cannot just be on them, which is another point that has been made in the debate. The Government, and we as politicians, have to help them.

One example of that is the Eco-Schools green flag programme, which many schools, nurseries and colleges are a part of. It consists of seven steps that education institutions can take to focus their communities of pupils and staff on the climate emergency, including putting environmental issues in learning plans and choosing texts in subjects such as English that will explore those issues. That work has been supported by education unions, who to their enormous credit have been pushing the Government to recognise that we are in a climate emergency, and that we have to pay more attention to it and put it at the top of our agenda. I pay tribute to the National Education Union, the National Union of Students and the University and College Union in particular for all their hard work on this issue, including promoting Climate Learning Month in the run-up to COP26, which as we all know starts next week.

There was a lot of talk about schools in this debate, and how they are being innovative in their teaching of environmental issues. From school veg patches that teach children about sustainability as well as healthy eating, to planting trees to mark achievements and celebrations, our schools are leading the way in creating a more sustainable, greener future. Our curriculum should empower that work, and we should be supporting those schools. Jeremy Corbyn talked about local gardening projects in schools in his constituency. I join him in paying tribute to Islington Council, which is doing an enormous amount of work on this, as well as the councils in my constituency, Brent and Camden Councils, which are doing similarly impressive work.

At the risk of this debate sounding like a north London takeover, I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner, who talked about taking a holistic approach to this issue. I wholeheartedly agree: we cannot just have a box-ticking exercise, but have to look at this properly and make sure there is an integrated way of teaching. I also pay tribute to him for his important work on the APPG for nature, which does not get recognised so much in this House, but is a crucial part of the work we do in Parliament.

If we are going to transform education, we must support our educators to do so. Embedding climate change within the curriculum will mean new training for teachers and teaching assistants. At Labour conference, the shadow Education Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston, announced that we would give all teachers a right to continuing professional development, with £210 million extra per year for CPD, which could certainly be used to deliver this kind of training. I would like the Minister to pick up on this issue and say whether that proposal is something his Government might consider.

However, we have to recognise that this is not just about the curriculum. We should be looking to make our school estate and all our school environments eco-friendly and fit for the future. That point was eloquently made by my hon. Friend Clive Lewis, and my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn also spoke about young people demanding that their school buildings be sustainable. If any Members have been to speak in schools, they will recognise young people’s passion about that.

What does concern me—I wonder whether the Minister will answer this—is that at a time when we need to be upgrading our school buildings as part of our national effort to get to net zero carbon emissions, since 2010 the capital spending on schools has been cut by 44%. That worries us. As my hon. Friend Rebecca Long Bailey said, our education system must prepare children and young people for the jobs of the future, which will be shaped by our transition to net zero.

The Labour party has announced plans for 400,000 green jobs. It is essential that we equip young people to develop the skills for those employment opportunities as we go into the future. That cannot happen only in schools, but it does require climate education and green skills to be embedded in further and higher education. That is why we welcome the new report from the Association of Colleges, “The Green College Commitment”, which recognises the need to go much further to embed those skills across courses. Will the Minister consider that carefully?

The leader of the Labour party has described climate change as

“the biggest long term threat we face”, and from this debate it sounds like many Members agree. Tackling climate change is at the heart of our agenda and our manifesto as we move forward. However, the reality is that those who are most affected by the impact of climate change are those who are going through schools, colleges, nursery and early years education right now. We must act more strongly if we are to stem the tide of climate decline and protect the younger generations from catastrophic consequences. I really hope that the warm words we are hearing from the Government are finally translated into tangible progress at COP26 next week.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles also spoke about the brutal cost that young people will bear. There is a harsh reality to that. Jim Shannon talked about leaving something behind for his five grandchildren. That is how I feel about my children; I feel that we need to leave something of the planet behind, and to prepare our children and young people for the challenges of the future.

That is why embedding learning about climate change and sustainability into our curriculum and our education system is vital; that is why this debate is vital; that is why we must equip young people with the skills they need to work in the green industries of the future. Far more innovation is needed from the Government when it comes to education and skills. It is crucial if we, as a country, want to leave the world in a transition to net zero. I hope that the Minister has been listening to the many important points raised in this very good debate. I also hope that the Minister will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East, as she requested.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

May I remind colleagues that for any messages that need to be shared with other Members, it is best to do so through the doorkeepers or the Parliamentary Private Secretaries rather than the Clerks.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Minister of State (Education) 10:43 am, 27th October 2021

Thank you, Ms Ghani; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. As a Robin, it is a great pleasure to speak in a debate that has involved so much discussion of wild birds. I congratulate Nadia Whittome on securing this very important debate. It is also a pleasure to follow Tulip Siddiq, and I join her in welcoming Scarlett, Yasmin, Charlie, Tess and Stella to the Chamber.

Ensuring that children and young people develop knowledge about the causes and impacts of climate change and gain a broad understanding of the importance of sustainability is absolutely crucial. We have heard the passion that Members have for the subject from every party across the House.

I would like to begin this speech by recognising the huge strength of feeling on this subject across all parties. As we approach COP26, the Government are looking ahead at how we can rebuild from the pandemic and seize the opportunity to build back greener. The Prime Minister has set out an ambitious net zero strategy, building on his “The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution”, which will create and support about 440,000 of those jobs in the future. One of the things we have heard in this debate is that all jobs in the future will be affected by sustainability and the campaign against climate change. That plan is the cornerstone of our ambition to build back greener by making the UK a world leader in clean energy, ensuring that our public buildings—including schools—are energy-efficient, and protecting and restoring the natural environment.

The next generation will play a vital role in delivering that. Time and time again in the debate, we have heard about the passion of young people in our schools for this cause. I will return to that, but first I will address the topic of the debate—the national curriculum as it stands.

Many schools are already doing great things inside and outside the classroom. We have heard a real range of those today, helping people to understand climate change and sustainability. Hawthorns Primary Special School is a six-times-accredited Eco-Schools green flag school. It was good to hear the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, praising that campaign. The school incorporates a number of sustainability initiatives in its everyday classroom activities, from collecting empty crisp packets and pen cartridges for recycling to composting food waste in its wormery composter—something that Jeremy Corbyn would support, I am sure, with his passion for growing things in schools. The school tries to raise its pupils’ awareness.

Multi-academy trusts are also doing some excellent work. Ark, for example, has a geography mastery curriculum, with knowledge of climate change and sustainability built in carefully over key stage 3, from exploring the delicate interconnections within ecosystems in year 7 to how environments are impacted by climate change in year 8 and examining coral reefs in great depth in year 9. It means that pupils can meaningfully tackle questions such as why coral reefs are intrinsically valuable, by the time they move into year 10.

High-quality comprehensive units about climate change and sustainability are also readily available to all schools through Oak National Academy. Oak has worked with teachers and subject experts during the pandemic to develop freely available resources. In geography and science, pupils may learn about the evidence for climate change, including what carbon footprint means, the definition of sustainability, what sustainable development means, and how it impacts decisions that we make in the present.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn made a valid point about teacher training and continuing professional development. Following initial teacher training, we are providing every early career teacher access to free high-quality training and support, underpinned by the early career framework. The framework was designed in consultation with the education sector and is designed to work for all early career teachers, regardless of their subject, phase or content. The training provided to deliver those programmes will build on curriculum knowledge embedded into the core content framework and has ensured that such content includes materials and exemplification applicable to all teachers, to help them deliver high-quality content, including on climate change.

The Royal Geographical Society’s young geographer of the year competition saw thousands of primary and secondary pupils in schools across the country explore how they have reconnected with their local environments and green spaces through the pandemic. There is, however, more that we can do.

As Schools Minister, I want us to do more to educate our children about the costs of environmental degradation and what we are doing to solve that, both now and in the future. Not only do our children deserve to inherit a healthy world, but they also need to be educated so that they are well prepared to live in a world affected by climate change, so that they may live sustainably and continue to fight the effects of climate change. I want us to give them the tools for the future.

That is why the national curriculum needs to be based on the findings of international best practice, to set world-class standards across all subjects—a broad, balanced and knowledge-rich curriculum that promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of people and will prepare them for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life. We want to empower the next generation to build a healthier world, with a national curriculum that expands on the good work under way to give them a rigorous education.

As hon. Members know, the national curriculum is a framework setting what the Department for Education expects all schools to cover in each subject. We trust teachers, so within that framework schools have the freedom and flexibility to determine how they deliver the content in a way that best meets the needs of their pupils. Today we have heard once again about the passion that people have to learn more about the environment and climate change. From my own school visits, I know how seriously teachers take that.

The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. A well-sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum enables pupils to master foundational context and knowledge before they move on to more complex ideas.

Jim Shannon spoke about Northern Ireland’s curriculum and where it references climate change. I heard what Kerry McCarthy said about “bittiness” and I do not want to bang on too long about this, but there are of course places in the science and geography curriculum where that is already heavily built in. I reassure hon. Members that topics related to both climate change and sustainability are covered within the science national curriculum.

In primary school, pupils start by learning to understand the weather and the habitat and basic needs of animals and plants, going on to learn about how environments can change. In secondary school, they learn about the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the effects that that has on the climate, as well as about the evidence for the anthropogenic causes of climate change.

The Prime Minister has committed to cementing the UK’s position as a science superpower. Improving the quality of science teaching and increasing the number of young people who study science subjects is really important if we are to address the STEM skills shortage and to support the UK economy and its growth. My hon. Friend Derek Thomas spoke passionately on that issue.

My right hon. Friend Philip Dunne, who is the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, and the hon. Members for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) all spoke about skills. We recognise that the demand for STEM skills is growing. That is why we must ensure that anyone, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to pursue STEM careers. That is a Government priority, and to address it we have rolled out programmes such as the advanced mathematics support programme and the science learning partnerships, to ensure that everyone has access to high-quality STEM learning. I recognise the role of the learned community of scientific experts in engaging with the Government and providing insight, teaching ideas and resources to enhance the science learning experience and champion STEM research.

Members will recognise that geography is a hugely productive way for students to engage in the study of climate change. At primary school, during key stage 1, they are taught about the seasons and habitats, including content about daily weather patterns in the UK. Key stage 2 geography includes teaching on climate zones, and in secondary school, during key stage 3, pupils are taught about change in the climate from the ice age to the present, and how human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environment and the climate. That ensures that pupils will be taught about the temporal and spatial aspects of climate and, importantly, the role that humans play.

Teachers do an incredible job in teaching those complex lessons and I want to support them to do so. Schools and teachers have access to expert resources, advice and continuing professional development on the teaching of climate change from bodies such as the Geographical Association and the Royal Geographical Society. Caroline Lucas pointed out that GCSE geography is not compulsory. I recognise that, but it is welcome that take-up of it, partly as a result of the English baccalaureate, has increased by 15 percentage points from 2010 to 2020.

We want children to leave school with the knowledge, skills and values that will prepare them to be citizens in modern Britain and the Britain of the future—a green Britain. Pupils should be taught the need for mutual respect and understanding to prepare them to take their place in society as responsible citizens. Citizenship is an effective way of doing that, and at primary school pupils are taught about what improves and harms their local natural and built environment, that resources can be allocated in different ways, and that economic choices affect individuals, communities and the sustainability of the environment.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, and many Members who spoke, I have been into so many primary schools and have been hugely impressed, and indeed heavily tested on my environmental knowledge by pupils. I recognise the extraordinary work that is going on both within the curriculum and beyond. I have heard many speeches by the right hon. Member for Islington North over the years. I agreed with much more of this one than I have many of the others. Over the past few decades, there have been some really significant advances in outdoor education. I praise what I have seen of forest schools, and how they have connected many city children with nature. There has been some really welcome progress in that space.

At secondary school, pupils are taught about the roles in society played by public institutions and voluntary groups, and the way that citizens work together to improve their communities, including opportunities to participate in community volunteering. As many Members have reflected, at times the impact of climate change is likely to feel overwhelming to young people. I recognise the real concern out there, and some of the conversations that I have had in schools reflect that. Assuming that nothing can be done to tackle the problem is a big issue in progressing with a solution, and it is important that we are positive about the actions being taken, and the role that pupils can play in making a difference—as the hon. Member for Nottingham East put it so well, equipping young people with the skills to clean up a mess that was not of their making.

Schools can choose to teach pupils about the impact of so many activities and sustainable approaches, such as litter picking, to make a difference in their own environment. I think we will all have seen in our constituencies great work done under initiatives such as the Great British spring clean. I recognise that pupils in schools want us to go further. Next week, I will visit a school near my own patch, in the Rivers Church of England Academy Trust, to see how it is incorporating sustainability into its schools right across the curriculum. It invited me to see that before I joined the Department, and I am delighted to be able to go and do so as Schools Minister.

These are vital steps to give children the tools that they need for a green future, but we are also taking action, as a Department, beyond the curriculum. The DFE already takes steps to reduce its environmental impact through various policies and programmes of work, including our multibillion-pound capital school building programmes, water and energy strategies, and commercial policies that ensure that we are procuring sustainably. Our estates team is working to green the DFE estate. I recognise some of the challenges that have been set in that respect, and of course we are dealing with an estate large parts of which go back to the 1930s or even beyond, and that is hugely challenging to decarbonise, but we want to ensure that as we invest and build new buildings, they are achieving our climate targets.

We have established a sustainability and climate change unit to co-ordinate and drive activity across the Department and provide leadership on this important work across sectors. At COP26, we will be hosting a summit for Environment and Education Ministers that will bring together Ministers from across the world. There we will set out the Government’s vision and encourage others to make commitments to sustainable education, not only making schools greener but equipping young people with knowledge about their environment by providing and promoting education and training opportunities for green careers.

I was pleased to be able to promote the summit to Education Ministers from 15 high-performing countries at last week’s international summit on the teaching profession, hosted by the OECD and Education International. We will be launching a draft sustainability and climate change strategy at the Environment and Education Ministers’ summit, which will set out further details of our plans to work with the education and children’s services systems to achieve excellence in education and skills for a changing world, net zero, climate resilience and a better environment for future generations.

I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham East again for securing the debate, and I want to give her an opportunity to respond. I welcome the contributions from all parts of the House. I assure the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion that we will carefully consider the case being made for a natural history GCSE. I share the commitment that we have heard in this debate to ensuring that children and young people leave education with the knowledge they need to help them address climate change and sustainability in the future. That is why what is taught in our schools is so vital, and why the curriculum is so important.

Britain can lead the way on this issue, equipping children with the knowledge they need to invent technologies and solutions that will ultimately beat climate change and heal the planet. We are committed to preparing pupils for the challenges of the 21st century and building back greener.

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East 10:56 am, 27th October 2021

I thank the Minister for his supportive comments about the campaign. I hope he will meet me—

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East

—and young people here today. I thank him for that assurance. Colleagues from across the House have spoken passionately and knowledgeably about the need for climate education, and I think it is safe to say that there is consensus in this Chamber on the need for young people to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to provide the solutions to climate change. Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about their own children and grandchildren, about constituents and school visits, and it is clear that this is a personal issue for many.

Derek Thomas spoke about climate justice, and both he and Munira Wilson spoke about the need to reduce climate anxiety and the important role that climate education can play in that. I pay tribute to my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq, for her supportive comments and the work she is doing on embedding climate education in everything we do, and to my hon. Friend Olivia Blake. It is important that this question forms part of lifelong learning; the debate has highlighted that, while we need to think about the generations that come after us and children in school now, many Members of this House also missed out on the opportunity for climate education.

My hon. Friends the Members for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) spoke about the need to decarbonise the education sector and to create jobs for the future, and why those green jobs must be accompanied by climate education so that people can do them. Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas also spoke about access to nature, which is very important to me. As an MP representing an inner-city seat, I want children in inner-city Nottingham, Bristol, London, Manchester and Sheffield to have the same opportunities as children in St Ives. I also thank Jim Shannon for highlighting why this touches on the issue of educational inequality.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the inclusion of sustainability and climate change in the national curriculum.