Climate breakdown is a real thing that needs redressing immediately. There is no better way to do that than to employ the use of channels provided by the Education Sector. Soon, we’re handing down this planet to the next generation, hence it is important to teach them about climate breakdown. Sustainability needs to be both taught and practiced throughout this sector. Children learn through demonstrations and other practical means. Therefore, this sector needs to be sustainable in all its stages – from the early years to tertiary and beyond.

In 2020 and 2021, the education sector faced its greatest challenge of recent years – education through a pandemic. The entire sector rose to the challenge and continued the delivery of education and care, selflessly prioritising our children and young people. While returning a sense of normality and helping our young people catch up remains our key immediate priority, as part of this recovery I am committed to Building Back Greener.” – Secretary of State for Education, The Right Honourable Nadhim Zahawi MP.

Evidently, every sector has been weathering the storm created by this biological crisis – Covid-19, and the education sector was not spared from experiencing the tumult as well. However, it is the most resilient amongst the lot, and that is only testament to its ability to adapt and thrive during trying time. The same attitude is needed to drive the cause of sustainability to its success. It needs to be treated as being in the state of crisis. Once the urgency kicks in, then we will all start moving in the right direction of redressing climate breakdown. The secretary’s words are proof that the education sector has the capacity to maintain competitiveness even through adversity.

As a way to announce and instil the idea of sustainability to everyone, COP26 has created a platform to air both climate breakdown scares and possible solutions – which is where the Department For Education (DfE) published its Climate breakdown and Sustainability Strategy draft (November 2021). Every guest that day was waiting to hear about these “plans to tackle climate breakdown”. The draft is for the “education and children’s services systems”, so you would expect it to include: early years, childminders, schools, training providers, colleges, and higher education. In the same strategy draft, you would anticipate to see all aspects of sustainability: natural world, social, financial and governance. However, its focus was on targets and strategic aims for schools in England, and on the natural world. “The UK requires the education sector to play its role in positively responding to climate breakdown and inspiring action on an international stage”. Obviously, it is very easy to be critical of early drafts, and this one is no exception, littered with confusion such as: referring to kids as young people not children; mostly ignoring day nurseries and training providers; turning a blind eye to childminders; and not acknowledging the practicalities behind getting it all funded and who will be responsible for it exactly. There was just nothing definitive about the draft, other than how 2050 on the Department for Education’s perspective looks like, and the outlook on 2030 for everyone else.

climate change presentation

This is not a besmirching campaign of the draft, it was not entirely devoid of solutions or palpable propositions. There were some takeaways, such as the main proposed strategies which were as follows:

National Education Nature Park – basically, all schools play areas will be registered online on one website, and observations of what grows where will be uploaded gradually by those settings who engage – and presumably efforts made to expand, develop, and support the biodiversity in those areas. You might want to register your garden and the areas you take your children to as a project, maybe we can upload photos and plans in due course?

Climate Leaders Awards are for those involved with developing their connection to nature (basically contributing to the above), a bit like a Duke of Edinburgh Award, or Eco-Schools, I’m hoping we will be able to use OMEP’s Education for Sustainability award that awards children with Bronze/Silver/Gold, engages with families, and accredits a setting once 60% of the children are engaging. There is this hope that winners of this award will go on to seek “green jobs” – but I’m hoping all jobs will be green, or at least working towards being green in the next 10 – 15 years.

Beyond this, they are looking at teacher training – one would hope this will include educators also, because it feels like an add-on rather than something embedded in everything that we do, so I hope that will develop further.

I tried to ignore the curriculum material for older children as it is an “add-on” to STEM rather than an embedded sustainability cultural change that I would like to see, but do we need the DfE to tell us how to educate sustainably or can we just get on with using OMEP and similar – which has already been researched and developed specifically for the sector. No mention of Ofsted’s role in any of this, although Scotland and Wales’ inspectors are already inspecting for sustainability, perhaps that was considered too detailed to be strategic. There may be some free resources created that we can access that are informative for colleagues responding to children’s interests or their own.

The working group I was invited to attend (2 hour Zoom meeting in January) was for the Education Estate, e.g. buildings. Representatives from schools, universities and just me from early years/training providers attended. We discussed carbon neutral buildings both new builds and conversions; biophilic schools (many plants inside and outside); walking and biking to school, reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality outside our settings and partnerships with the Environment Agency and Local Authorities on flood risks and weather resilience, all great topics.

Another working group focused on Operations and Supply Chains. There is a National Procurement Policy Statement for schools that we could look at, but meanwhile: ask suppliers for the carbon footprint of their products (which could include reducing meat and dairy, increasing plant-based foods and drinks), to minimise packaging, to minimise delivery pollution, request information about the circular economy of their products (being able to return them for repurposing or recycling after use/breakage), ask whether the product is sourced locally or not, and about how to improve waste prevention and management. This would be so much better supported if there was a national carbon footprint labelling of course, so that we could take this into account whenever we buy anything. It would also be much better supported if the government policies were aligned with this: e.g. If they would fund plant-based milk and fruits as an option to dairy milk, like they do in Scotland (albeit with inadequate funding).

Lastly, Data is crucial. If we don’t know our utility bills, our mileage claims, the weight of our waste and other impact expenses in general, then we cannot tell if we should improve or not and whether what we do has any impact or not. This is all acknowledged in Action Area 5. The DfE does not have any concrete data on this even for state-owned schools, never mind the rest, but they do know we could make a massive impact on the country’s carbon footprint if all schools improved. Currently, larger companies must measure their energy usage under ESOS, and publicly listed companies must declare their energy usage and plans to improve in their annual returns as a legal requirement. I think it’s good practice for all settings to do the same, and I wonder if the DfE will make this data measurement mandatory for all education establishments. If so, what would be the recourse for the providers that did not or could not do it? Let’s see what the final version of this Sustainability and Climate Breakdown Strategy will say when it comes out in April 2022.

Well… That’s the strategy draft summarised from an early years’ perspective. There is further consultation ongoing which can only be a good thing for our children’s future. It’s very encouraging to see that the Department for Education (DfE) is somewhat engaging sustainability and climate breakdown with regards to the early years providers, schools, colleges, and as well as with universities. Hopefully, the final strategy does include something more tangible on how this can be funded from the early years till tertiary. I think it should also acknowledge that this isn’t a sustainability strategy but the natural world sustainability/climate breakdown strategy, which cannot stand without its supporting pillars – the social and economic impact, together with competent governance to execute the vision.