How to make your curriculum eco-friendly

To truly tackle the climate change crisis, we need to rethink how we teach and learn, writes Sean Vernell

Sean Vernell

Climate change: How to make your curriculum eco-friendly

In England, there is a growing movement to turn the curriculum green. Scotland already has legislation that requires schools to integrate climate change and the ecological crisis into their lessons. There is no such law in England. It’s yet another example of the huge gap between the seeming acceptance of the climate crisis by the political classes and the paucity of action.

If we are to be successful in achieving the goal of greening the curriculum then we will need examples on how this could work. The themed learning week on Climate Change, Power and Society launched by the City and Islington College and sponsored by the Capital City College Croup, UCU, NEU, NUS, Tes and Students Organising for Sustainability was an important step in providing a model.

It was our sixth attempt at creating a themed learning week at City and Islington College. But this time it went national with hundreds of schools, colleges and universities participating.


News: Colleges and universities to launch climate commission

More: How (and why) I became a climate change teacher

Background: UCU calls on colleges to let staff join climate strike


The initial motivation for creating such a week came about as a result of the frustration felt by lecturers at the college at the limited opportunities for collaborative work between departments. The 19th-century model of education, separating disciplines into their different silos, was felt to be a barrier in allowing students to grasp the bigger picture of the world in which they lived.

Lecturers and students from the drama department rarely met anyone from the ESOL department. Media students and staff rarely met with IT staff and students. Despite being in the same building for five days a week we knew very little about what each other did. 

But for one week a year, we break down these barriers by cross-fertilising our teaching and learning experiences around certain themes. This year, we chose to focus on climate change. 

Drama students met with ESOL students to record their experiences of migration due to climate change and turn them into physical theatre performances.  IT and Business staff and students worked on producing facts to be displayed around the college about climate change and organised a climate question time where hundreds of students debated how to green the workplace and whether there is a technological fix to the climate crisis. Media and GCSE English staff and students teamed up to create a photographic and essay exhibition around the theme Dystopias and Utopias – Voices from the Future.

All five centres at City and Islington college were involved. The activities spilt over to the Tate Modern with our creative and performing arts department teaching and learning from the fifth floor of the gallery all week. They invited the public to come and participate in the learning experience and over two and half thousand people participated during the week. 

It is difficult to convey what an incredibly powerful and emotional experience it was for all those who attended.

Staff facilitated a space that allows students to express themselves through art and performance to sing, dance, perform, paint, weave and much more. By so doing the week-long event captured brilliantly and graphically young people’s desires, fears, hopes and aspirations.

What education could and should be 

It should be compulsory for Ofsted inspectors to attend this week, to really understand what is outstanding.  But my fear is that they would not understand what it is they are witnessing. How do you measure learning here? Where are the pathways to employability? What are the learning aims and objectives?

The truth is that the learning that took place in that one week will stay with students for the rest of their lives.

The week was not only about the big events. Staff created teaching resources to integrate into learning. The importance of such a week is not simply that it raises awareness amongst our students but also our staff. It has meant we have had to read and understand more about the climate and ecological crisis in order to be more confident practitioners.

The week was organised by staff themselves. Management was very supportive of the initiative and allowed staff to be innovative and experiment. The week gave a glimpse of what education could and should be. A place where learning is about allowing students to explore the world they live in, not only to better understand it, but also to be empowered to change it. And where practitioners have the confidence to facilitate this learning experience.

The movement to green the curriculum is growing. We now need to build on this week’s success by looking to create examples where colleges, led by staff and students, fully integrate into their learning issues surrounding the climate crisis.

The week was inspiring for all those who participated. We are now in a race against time to reverse the damage caused by climate change. Our education system needs to be reset to meet this challenge. A challenge, as the themed learning week has shown, we are perfectly able to meet if we are audacious and courageous enough to rethink how we teach and learn. 

Sean Vernell is the vice-chair of the University and College Union's further education committee and branch secretary at Capital City College Group.

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Sean Vernell

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