Climate change: 5 reasons why FE needs to act now

The FE sector is uniquely placed to help tackle climate change – and it has student support, writes Charlotte Bonner
5th February 2021, 12:39pm
Charlotte Bonner


Climate change: 5 reasons why FE needs to act now
Climate Change: 5 Reasons Fe Colleges Should Act Now

Last year, the UK government was supposed to be hosting COP26 in Glasgow - the 26th Conference of Parties where representatives from around the globe meet to negotiate and agree our collective response to climate change. As with so many things in 2020, plans changed and COP26 was postponed for a year. 

However, the change in date does not mean that the further education and training sector should wait before it fully embraces climate action.

Why FE colleges need to take action against climate change

Here are five reasons why:

We need a strong workforce pipeline to decarbonise industry

FE is the pipeline for the workforce of many industries, employers and sectors who have a critical role to play in sustainable development; for example, construction, manufacture, agriculture, catering and transport.

The Aldersgate Group (a membership organisation composed of some of the largest businesses in the UK with a collective global turnover in excess of £550 billion), in its latest policy briefing, has called for urgent action to plug the deficit in skills that currently undermines the growth of low-carbon supply chains across the UK economy.

Background: John McDonnell urges students to act on climate change

More: How to make your curriculum eco-friendly

Tes magazine: Are FE colleges doing enough on climate change?

It says: "The first part of the challenge is the supply side, with a need to have the right skills available in the workforce to deliver our climate and environmental objectives. This means that education providers at all levels need to adapt the curricula in order to ensure that the skills and competencies of their students and graduates are aligned with the requirements of a net-zero emissions economy."

It's not just the Aldersgate Group: similar briefings from National Grid, the Grantham Institute, ETICB, the Council for Science and Technology and RICS (no doubt amongst others) all recognise that skills and training are critical to meet net-zero targets.

The FE sector is perfectly placed to grow the talent pipeline to address current skills shortages in low-carbon technology industries and beyond, ensuring that learners develop the required knowledge and transferable skills to take up the jobs of the future.

We have great reach

FE is uniquely placed to bring about transition and transformation in our society. The sector reaches millions of students from all walks of life, homes 100,000 staff and reaches communities in every town and city in the country. That reach has three big benefits.

Firstly, it means the sector can support a just transition to net-zero. With support, workers of all ages and backgrounds, from across the UK, are able to access training and retraining to be part of the net-zero workforce in FE. A soon-to-be-published report from the Grantham Institute argues that the 10 most deprived constituencies across Great Britain, where thousands of workers are exposed to the risks of redundancies from high-carbon industries, are also constituencies that would benefit from the new jobs and industries associated with the transition to a zero-carbon economy.

Secondly, it could boost diversity across net-zero sectors. The environment and sustainability sector has been identified by Policy Exchange as the second least diverse among over 200 professions in the UK. The FE sector has a critical role to play in improving the appeal, accessibility and relevance of careers in climate change, and sustainability, within the communities it serves.

Finally, although large-scale systemic changes are needed to combat the climate crisis, individual engagement with the climate change agenda is going to make those systemic changes more likely. The reach of the FE sector could enable greater reach and buy-in to behaviour change, community action and consumer choice.

Our learners want this

Demand for climate action is high, with longitudinal studies showing that 83 per cent of FE learners feel their institution should be doing more on sustainable development. Some 75 per cent of learners say they believe all courses should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development, and 58 per cent of learners want to learn more about sustainability.

Current learner exposure to teaching on the most overtly sustainability-focused skills is reported to be low, with only 27 per cent saying they have experienced teaching on "understanding how human activity is affecting nature" and 28 per cent saying they have experienced teaching on "looking at global problems from the perspective of people from around the world".

The youth-led Teach the Future campaign is calling for the inclusion of the climate emergency and ecological crisis in teacher training and a new professional teaching qualification. With no COP26 last year, learners from around the world came together to participate in MockCOP, generating the youth perspective on what global action is needed to mitigate, and adapt to the consequences of, the climate crisis.

There's real urgency

It's intentional that phrases like global warming and climate change are increasingly being replaced with the climate crisis and climate emergency. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we have less than 12 years to limit global heating to a maximum of 1.5C to avoid climate breakdown.

We're already seeing the devastating impacts of climate change in more frequent extreme weather occurrences, strained global food supplies and increasing migration, conflict and disease. This will only get worse if we don't act now, and we're the last generation that can really act before the consequences reach a tipping point at which they become beyond human control.

The support is there

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of climate change (indeed, there's a growing recognition of eco-anxiety) but one of the things that the past nine months has shown us is that radical change at a global scale for the protection of society is possible.

The climate agenda isn't new to our sector and there are plentiful examples of excellent practice happening, but the past 12 months have seen a revival of interest and support available to ensure our sector plays its part, and this is likely to continue to grow.

The Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education's FE Climate Action Roadmap, published earlier this year and championed for the sector by the Association of Colleges, is a fantastic resource for institutions wanting to develop a robust approach to decarbonisation, not just in their estate and operations but in their leadership and governance, learning, teaching and research and partnerships and engagement, too. A recent Tes article showcased some of the organisations that are early adopters of the roadmap and already making great headway.

In September last year, the Education and Skills Funding Agency set out non-statutory guidance for FE colleges on how to report their energy and carbon impacts. Scottish institutions are already mandated to not only report but also reduce these impacts year-on-year in their outcome agreements.

The College of the Future report recognises climate change as a trend to which the sector needs to adapt, and its recommendations are absolutely in line with the sector being able to embrace climate action not just to reduce negative impacts, but to build positive, sustainable communities into the future.

The prime minister's 10-point post-Covid-19 recovery plan doesn't just contain a skills guarantee for those needing to retrain, but also prioritises the transition to low-carbon technology - "the green industrial revolution". To ensure those involved in delivering that revolution have the knowledge, understanding and skills that they need, the FE and training sector is going to be critical, and early indications from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education suggest further support to enable us to rise to the challenge will soon be announced.

At the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), we are planning how we can best add value and create lasting positive change within the FE landscape. We know the potential of the sector and the absolutely critical role the FE workforce has in embracing climate action and sustainable development more broadly. We're ready to work with the whole sector to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Are you?

Charlotte Bonner is the national head of education for sustainable development at the Education and Training Foundation

This article is part of The ETF Thinks… campaign, which aims to stimulate thinking in the FE sector and share ideas nationally

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