Climate of hope

The climate crisis should inform many of our life choices over the coming years. But what role can the education sector, and independent schools in particular, play in this?

The climate crisis has steadily risen up the agenda for most of us in recent years and, in our various ways, we are all trying to help mitigate the effects of global warming. Among all of this increased awareness, it’s been widely noted that our young people are central – both as the generation who will be most affected by changes to our environment and, commendably, as one of the most engaged sections of society when it comes to sustainability and environmental responsibility.

Our younger generations are, and must continue to be, aware and active in the fight against climate change. But how much responsibility lies with our schools, for continuing to educate our children about climate change and the need for urgent action, and for modelling best sustainable practices? And, specifically, do independent schools have more of a responsibility to step up than state schools due to their better resources?

Alan Parkinson advises schools to flag up staff who have electric vehicles to encourage others


Laying out the problem

A first step, says Alan Parkinson, head of geography at King’s Ely Junior School and vice president of the Geographical Association, is to be clear about the gravity of the situation. “The first stage is to declare that there is a climate emergency, as witnessed by events such as the Siberian wildfires of 2020, melting glaciers which threaten water security, and the massive iceberg A68a which broke off the Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica and briefly threatened the ecosystems of South Georgia.”

This urgency duly acknowledged, schools “should model good behaviour: flagging up staff who cycle to work or have electric vehicles, reducing paper usage, recycling as much as possible, and teaching ideas such as the circular economy and the environmental impacts of fast fashion”.

“There are also numerous ‘days’ during the school calendar which can be a focus for discussions, while eco school committees can be established to harness pupils’ voices. In terms of inspirational personalities, students are probably familiar with Greta Thunberg, but may not know of other young climate activists such as Licypriya Kangujam and Quannah Chasinghorse,” says Parkinson.

Students are probably familiar with Greta Thunberg, but may not know of other young climate activists such as Licypriya Kangujam and Quannah Chasinghorse – Alan Parkinson

A former head of geography at Bedales School, Paul Turner now shares ideas, including climate crisis-related lesson plans, on his website. The climate crisis campaigner’s teaching materials have been downloaded some 7,000 times for classrooms from Iceland to South Africa. His aim is for these resources to “engage young people with the broad societal questions, rather than just the mechanistic scientific elements”.

Turner also belongs to both Teachers for Climate Action, which have organised events including the Big Climate Teach-In during summer 2020, and the UK Schools Sustainability Network (SSN), a student-led network for sharing ideas and resources, which includes many independent schools among its members.

He’s clear that independent schools can take a lead here. “It’s often teachers from independent schools who have the time and resources to concentrate on sustainability – so, for example, independent schools might be able to employ a designated head of sustainability.”

Beyond that, though, all schools have a key role to play. “Schools are the centre of a community. Parents drop off their children every day, so there is an immediate connection with those parents and with the wider community. Also, research shows that young people, and young girls in particular, are among the biggest influencers on their parents’ behaviour – on the choice of car, holiday, food and clothing.”

“We want our pupils to learn about innovation in green technologies,” says Claire Robinson. Pictured: wind turbines


A demographic with responsibilities

Independent schools clearly need to take a lead on this, says Turner. On the one hand because of those enviable resources and opportunities, and on the other because it must be faced, their demographic is a disproportionately large contributor to the crisis.

“The fact is that the richest slice of the population – and this obviously overlaps with independent school communities – is a huge contributor to climate change. The richest 1% of the world’s population is responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity*.

“Elsewhere, for example, SUVs are the norm at these schools. Despite emitting 25% more carbon dioxide on average than a medium-sized car, SUVs have jumped from nearly 7% of private cars sold in the UK in 2009 to more than 21% in 2018.”

Or take flying, which again overlaps with the independent and boarding schools’ demographic. Some 15% of the UK population take 70% of UK flights. To counter this, says Turner, there is an increasing movement among independent schools to avoid taking flights for school trips, and to take a coach instead.

Parkinson adds: “There’s a potential for independent school communities, with their overseas students and swimming pools that need heating, to have above-average climate impacts – however, equally, they are perhaps more likely to have explored ways to reduce these costs, mindful of the message that is sent to both students and parents.”

King’s Ely pupils working on reducing food waste


Intra- or extra-curricular?

So, the responsibilities and opportunities are clearly there for schools. But how much of their climate awareness, and sustainability activities, should take place inside the classroom, and how much outside – via measures like striving for carbon-neutrality and/or minimum food waste, or partnering with the local community on sustainable practices?

Clearly, many activities related to climate awareness and sustainability can happen right across the school campus. For example, King’s Ely has a policy of replacing lighting with panels that reduce energy usage, while the school’s energy comes from a renewable supplier.

“Our Junior School eco committee has also started the process of applying for Eco School certification, by exploring our water and energy usage,” Parkinson adds. “These usage figures are displayed so that students can see the trends and play their part in turning out unused lights and reducing food waste in the dining hall.”

Turner is clear, though, that the classroom is the most important place for the climate-awareness journey to start. “We need to frame climate change as part of a bigger story. A common phrase is ‘social justice is climate justice’ – you can’t solve climate change without solving other large structural, societal problems such as racial justice.

“So, for example, you might think that all we need to do is remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, by stopping the burning of fossil fuels. But the reality is that a very small portion of the world is a disproportionately large part of the problem.

“Yet those who will be affected most are the poorest and most vulnerable. Here in the UK, the poorest people are most affected by those issues, in terms of access to food, jobs linked to traditional fossil-fuel industries.”

An area where schools can really have an impact is careers advice. “A lot of schools now are making a strong focus on green jobs, thus putting a positive lens on the crisis. There are now careers fairs based purely on green jobs – energy, architecture, sciences – or on jobs that don’t rely on fossil fuels, such as teacher, for instance.

“Even the traditional careers landscape can be viewed differently. For example, students from independent schools may aspire to jobs in law or finance – well, there are now green investments, laws around ecocide, and so on.”

Paul Turner, climate crisis campaigner


Hope, not pessimism; projects, not strikes

At the heart of all this needs to be a message of hope, says Turner. “Currently, a lot of the green messaging is framed within a mood of anxiety, which can lead to apathy. People don’t realise how they can change things, so what we are trying to do is to empower young people to understand the mechanisms of the world – governments, treaties, big corporations, trade, how decisions are made, how their actions can have a positive impact.

“We want young people to be aware that they have some agency here. And schools can be a microcosm of these larger mechanisms, groups, committees and councils who help with decision-making.”

As such, Turner encourages fewer climate strikes, and more positive action. “It’s about political literacy and involvement, rather than activism in the form of strikes. When we had the youth climate strikes, many teachers were a bit reluctant to encourage students to participate, as that meant missing a day’s learning.

“They wanted, rather, to engage them in a positive way in their own school – to do some litter picking or gardening. These are still forms of activism, and of showing you care, but they’re far more constructive than simply going on strike.”

It’s about political literacy and involvement, rather than activism in the form of strikes – Paul Turner

Parkinson adds: “I’m impressed by the work of David Alcock, a geographer at Bradford Grammar School and his work in this area, stressing the importance of hopeful pedagogies. He founded Hopeful Education. This shows the future-focused nature of geography, and the need to emphasise solutions as well as problems, and explore how young people can have agency in the current situation rather than feeling powerless.”

The good news is that there will soon be more climate education making its way into the centre of the curriculum. “At the moment, climate change is generally taught in niche subjects like biology and geography,” Turner explains. “It should soon become more central to the curriculum, and present across various subjects including PSHE.”

As evidence, Turner cites the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) taking place in Glasgow this November. Education will be on the agenda, and many environmental organisations and charities are getting their resources ready to offer to teachers. Indeed, Parkinson and his colleagues at the Geographical Association are working to develop materials for educators; teachers can find materials already on the Geographical Association website.

Pupils at Holme Grange planting vegetables


Leading by example

Schools and teachers can lead from the front here. Earlier this year, Berkshire’s Holme Grange School had the distinction of creating the world’s first carbon literacy teachers. The school signed up last summer to awards organised by eduCCate Global, worldwide deliverers of teaching on climate change.

“We want our community to understand that living in a lower carbon, less polluted world will bring a host of advantages including cleaner, greener cities, improved public transport, better insulated houses, greater energy options, reductions in consumerism, exciting innovation and healthier diets,” explains headteacher Claire Robinson.

“In addition, we want our pupils to learn about innovation in green technologies and environmental careers in fields as diverse as science, social science, journalism and the creative industries.”

She continues: “We have supported all staff to build on their knowledge through the UN CC:Learn Children and Climate Change course, which was completed by every member of staff. We believe this has given staff the knowledge and confidence to discuss the issues that climate change brings with students. It has also inspired staff to learn more and to understand that the issues are quite widespread and more than climate change alone.”

In the wake of the courses, green initiatives have sprouted up across school. “We have recently introduced ‘follow-me’ printing to the school, which means staff and pupils can now print at any machine across the site, cutting down on wasteful unwanted printing when the wrong device is selected,” adds Leanne Hughes, sustainability lead and head of design and technology.

“We have also signed up to a reforestation programme – so for every 8,000 pages we print, a tree is planted in a sustainable forest. School minibuses will be replaced with electric vehicles as soon as is practical, and all our recent building projects have taken sustainability principles into account. What’s more, all our staff have been given a sustainability objective as part of the school performance appraisal system.”

Robinson agrees that the tone of the message to our young people needs to be one of hope. “This generation could be one of the most resilient generations if we support them in developing the dispositions and habits of mind which will allow that resilience. It isn’t just about teaching them about climate change and climate literacy: we need young people who are problem-solvers, as every problem is a solution in disguise.

“We need them to understand the need to take responsibility and show commitment, we need to develop confidence and also self-efficacy, engagement and aspiration. We need to show them that solutions are already here, we need to raise awareness and take action individually as well as collectively.”

Useful links

Paul Turner’s climate lesson plans: and
AimHi Climate and Nature Course:
David Alcock, Hopeful Education:
Geographical Association announcement on COP26:
EduCCate Global:

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