COP26: What do teachers need to do now?

Now that COP26 has finished, schools are facing major calls to increase their sustainability – but where should they begin?
12th November 2021, 2:59pm
Kate Parker


COP26: What do teachers need to do now?
Cop26: What Do Teachers Need To Do Know?

And just like that, COP26 is over. Two weeks of wall to wall climate change coverage, debate, proposals and protests, not to mention the months of build up, has come to an end.

As well as reflecting on the fortnight's events, we should now look ahead and ask ourselves: how will things be different next year, at COP27? How will the world have moved on in the battle against climate change by November 2022?

In the area of education, at least, we have some indication of how things might look. Both Jeremey Miles, Welsh education minister, and education secretary Nadhim Zahawi made big announcements in regards to the steps they'd like to see schools take. 


In Wales, from January 2022, all new school and college buildings, major refurbishment and extension projects will be required to meet net zero carbon targets. 

In England, teachers will be supported to "deliver world-leading climate change education" through a model science curriculum, due to be in place by 2023. There will also be a new virtual National Education Nature Park which will encourage students to increase the biodiversity in their school grounds, as well as a new Climate Award which will recognise students' work in protecting the local environment. 

The push for change is being driven from the very top. But do the announcements go far enough? Not really, say Dr Lynda Dunlop and Dr Elizabeth Rushton.

Dunlop is a senior lecturer in science education at the University of York and Rushton is a lecturer in geography education at King's College London. For the past year, they have worked with hundreds of teachers and students to develop a manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability, funded by the British Educational Research Association (BERA).

One of the key problems with the government's plan, they say, is that it wasn't developed in collaboration with those who are directly affected: teachers and students.

"[The DfE's draft strategy for education and children's services systems around sustainability and climate change] is not a document which sees young people and teachers as co-producing learning in this area," says Rushton. "Why can't we have young people and teachers involved in policymaking in a meaningful way where they get to actually co-write these drafts rather than being asked to comment on government perspectives? We need to give them the opportunity to really speak about their experiences to those in leadership and not just provide commentary."

This is where their manifesto, Education for Environmental Sustainability, is different.

Dunlop explains: "A lot of the work in this area focuses on either teachers or young people's views and we saw a need to bring people together and to hear from the voices which aren't usually heard in discussions around climate change in education."

In virtual workshops throughout the year, Dunlop and Rushton brought together 200 young people, teachers and teacher educators, including those from the Black Environment Network, as well as organisations that support children with additional learning needs. The aim, says Rushton, was to produce a manifesto that genuinely reflected the views of the teachers and young people. 

The manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability

So what, exactly, does the manifesto say? It has 11 key points, some of which can be realised in schools, others of which go way above school leaders' responsibilities and into policy.

  1. Education has a key role to play in creating long term responses to the social and environmental consequences of the climate crisis.
  2. Young people and teachers want to see change at all levels to value sustainability in their schools - not only in teaching and learning but in the way schools are operated and regulated.
  3. A coordinated review of secondary school curricula involving teachers and students across the UK is needed.
  4. The environment should be part of all subjects and school practices.
  5. Sustainability coordinators should be introduced to lead each school to a greener approach.
  6. A focus on the environment both outside and inside the classroom is required - for instance, schools should scrutinise their approaches to procurement and food.
  7. Continuing professional development for teachers of all subjects is needed to help them gain confidence in teaching about sustainability.
  8. Schools need better opportunities to "green" their own environments, including growing food and other plants.
  9. External accredited awards should be introduced for students and teachers with an environmental sustainability focus; for older students, these awards should carry UCAS points.
  10. A community "sustainability curriculum" is needed for groups and parents involved in education.
  11. A campaign to enlist the endorsement of politicians and social media influencers should be launched.

Some leaders, teachers and students may look down this list and recognise things they already do in school - growing food or having a sustainability coordinator for example - others may feel completely overwhelmed. Is this yet another checklist of things schools need to find time and money for when resources are already stretched?

Dunlop stresses that it shouldn't be on schools to find a way to implement all of these points alone. 

"This should be a starting point for conversations between teachers, parents [and] young people. It's not a straight jacket, but an invitation," she explains. "The manifesto brings out the sense of the community, that schools are this positive focal point for learning and building relationships. My hope is that schools look at the manifesto, see that it represents different people's perspectives, and ask: what does this say for our context? What are the things that we can agree on? What are the things actually that we might want to tweak and change?"

What leaders should do next

So moving forward, what action should schools be looking to take from the manifesto? What could they look to introduce in the near future?

1. Do an audit of green activity

The first step for any school, says Rushton, is to find out what action is already being taken.

"If you're an individual teacher or student, first try and find out all the work that's going on in your school, because I imagine that there'll be more than you think. Talk to other people, hand around a questionnaire and dedicate an assembly to it," suggests Rushton. "Once you know what's already happening, you know which gaps need to be filled or built on." 

2. Form a group

No one can do all of this work alone, and Dunlop and Rushton recommend forming a group of enthusiasts - including both staff and students - within the school community who can collaborate and push forward change together. 

3. Build a shared vision and set goals 

Once a group has been formed, Dunlop suggests booking in a meeting, either at lunchtime or after school, to look over the manifesto and decide which parts you'd like to act on. You could focus on the food served in the canteen, energy use in buildings or how staff and students travel to school.

All voices must be seen as equal in discussions.

"Remember to think about the shared vision," she says. "What is it that we want to achieve together in this context? If you're working towards that shared vision, and that's something that teachers and young people have in common, then that makes it easier to say what the next steps are."

Here, goals should be set, and additional meetings should be scheduled throughout the year to see how things are progressing.

4. Open up your school

The solutions to realising change don't just need to come from within the school, says Dunlop, but the wider community too. If you want to upskill and build teachers' confidence around teaching climate change, for example, why not use the expertise of eco-groups in your community? Opening your doors to such groups can extend the reach of sustainability work. 

"Schools can be hubs of sustainability: they can be a place where groups can meet, where they can link with other things going on with the community or be the source of stimulus for other discussions," she says. "We need to start young, so are there groups for parents and toddlers who can be supported? Think about your sustainability over the life cycle."

Dunlop suggests schools with allotments and gardens could allow community groups to look after these in the weekends or school holidays - which takes the pressure off the sustainability lead.

"This work should be seen as a community endeavour and schools should be able to draw on the expertise and opportunities that other sectors have in this area: charities and other educational groups that work outside of the classroom," she adds. "The school site could be a place where educators come together with lots of different groups, including parents, to work together on this."

But what about eco-anxiety?

Most leaders do want to make a positive change when it comes to climate change: and there is already work going on across the country in so many schools. Dunlop and Rushton's manifesto should be a useful resource for those who are unsure how to approach this, and like many other independent resources, it stresses the importance of student voice. Indeed, the government's own plan highlights the need for student action. 

But what if students are weighed down by a feeling of helplessness when it comes to tackling this mammoth issue? What if the overriding message that our way of living needs to change, and fast, is damaging to our young people's mental health? 

Worryingly, research shows that this may be the case. 

Academics at the University of Bath recently asked 10,000 young people across 10 countries about their thoughts and feelings on the subject of climate change. They found that 59 per cent of 16- to 25-year-olds were worried or extremely worried about climate change and over 45 per cent said that their feelings about it negatively affected their daily lives.

And experts writing in the British Medical Journal recently warned about the damage wreaked by "eco-anxiety", noting that the climate crisis was taking a mounting toll on children's mental health.

So how do we balance the need for action from schools, against the need to protect students' mental health?

Dr Anantha Duraiappah is the director of the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP). According to him, the solution to eco-anxiety is building students' emotional resilience to address climate change topics with confidence. 

"We need to ask children about the emotions they have around climate change. At the Institute, we had a group of young people and we showed them a series of videos on the ecocrisis. We asked them, 'how do you feel? Do you feel you feel anger? Do you feel sadness? Disappointment? Frustration?' And once those feelings had been identified, we opened a dialogue about action they could take," he explains.

As a result, some children planted trees, some changed their meat consumption, others have changed the way they think about travel. Understanding what they can do, as individuals, to contribute towards saving the planet can be a great antidote to eco-anxiety, says Duraiappah. 

"We don't want our children to have empathetic distress. They are very passionate about this issue and they want to do something about this issue. If they get the sense that they can't do anything about it, they get a sense of worthlessness which can lead to depression," he says. 

"The only way to counteract this, we find, is getting them to do something. Even if it's a small thing, knowing they are contributing towards a solution is key. Doing joint activities with communities, families and parents, within their school experience, is essential." 

Dunlop and Rushton both agree here. "Collective action and working together and working across generations and working with people who have different expertise and strengths and experiences to yourself can reduce the sense of isolation," says Dunlop. "It reduces the sense that this is a problem that we can't solve." 

Clearly, there are so many within education, and outside of education, who are keen to ensure teachers and students are equipped to make long-lasting sustainable change. Resources like the manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability really help to drill down into the specific things schools can do in this area. But ultimately, say Dunlop and Rushton, unless the government properly funds and resources this work, the scale of impact schools can have will always be limited. 

"We've got all these ideas, there's all the support, there's all the enthusiasm, energy commitment, but if this is just going to be something else that we add to a group of people who are already under so much pressure, it's not going to have a lasting impact," says Rushton. 

"We have to have resource, it can't just be done on the back of the fag packet. The government can make a difference if resources and funding can come from the top while acknowledging all the work that goes on already. That would give permission for this work to really grow and ensure teachers and students don't feel like they're constantly swimming against the tide."

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