As an undergraduate studying biology in Edinburgh around 20 years ago, I remember lectures that clearly outlined the risks of a global pandemic and climate change to the public, society and the economy.
We are now living through both.
Given the immediate impact that Covid-19 has had on our lives, it is entirely understandable that the world has sat upright and acted quickly. However, we also need to recognise that although the threats of climate change are different to those associated with the pandemic, they are no less real and also require creativity, collaboration, and innovation to be overcome.
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Bearing in mind the magnitude of these sorts of challenges, it seems right that, as educators, we ask how we can assess and redefine education to better equip young people with the relevant skills and sense of agency required to solve the sustainability issues of our time.
The current notion of "build back better" is surely as relevant to education as it is everywhere else. Through the years, many have been quick to suggest that the UK education system is broken, either in part of in full. Disappointingly, those who express these views are most often short on answers.
To address these issues, Dollar Academy – in partnership with Sustainability Education and in association with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership – held the first-ever UK summit tackling sustainability and education.
Initially due to take place at our school this spring, we adapted and digitised the offering across two days in May. On day one, Will Day, longstanding sustainability advisor to PwC, and Emily Shuckburgh, director of Cambridge Zero, provided an overview of current sustainability issues and their implications for the economy and society. They were joined on day two by industry leaders in oil and gas, chemical manufacturing, transport and drinks production, who outlined how their companies were tackling the challenges of climate change.
A few key themes emerged from the discussions. Firstly, it seems clear that schools need to better understand the ways – both positive and negative – in which industry and sustainability are inherently connected. To encourage this, it may be worth exploring how industry can take a stake in education. By doing so, we may begin to see a national curriculum that is grounded in contemporary real-world challenges that need solving.
When it comes to the complicated problems that we face in the climate crisis, academics and industry leaders tell us that at least some of the solutions will come from breaking down subject silos. This, too, has serious implications for how we educate our pupils, with the criticality of group-based interdisciplinary working beginning to shine through. The fact that the conference itself was digitised and attended by participants from across the globe is also significant, pointing to the power of connectedness and the importance of widening access.
So, perhaps as a global population, we have not, to date, listened to the warnings associated with pandemics and climate change. I am, however, an optimist, and events such as this, where people came together to share challenges and begin to build solutions, fill me with great hope. And hope and optimism are, I think, two powerful tools with which we can build a more sustainable future.
Ian Munro is rector (headteacher) of Dollar Academy, in Scotland