Heated debate

11th December 2009 at 00:00
As world leaders assemble in Copenhagen, climate change will be brought to the fore in schools around Britain. But how can you convey the harsh realities sensitively and effectively?

As the rains fell relentlessly over the North West of England three weeks ago, causing widespread flooding and misery, pupils on the other side of the Pennines might well have been pondering whether it was anything to do with climate change.

Further afield, more than 60 prime ministers and presidents are attending a landmark climate change conference in Copenhagen to discuss what can be done to stem the likelihood of extreme weather events such as this.

But how can pupils not directly affected by the impact of climate change understand the realities? For the past two years, more than 100 schools in the North East have been taking part in an environmental project aimed at spreading the word and implementing the topic into the curriculum.

And the message seems to be getting through. Nine-year-old Bethany Webb, a pupil at Edmondsley Primary in Durham, which is one of the participating schools, says: "We have too much pollution in the world, so that needs to change and we children need to make a difference for our future.

"We should use less electricity and turn off the lights, and pull up the blinds in the classroom rather than put the lights on. We need to save the polar bears."

The Climate Change Schools Project, which is supported by a number of organisations, including the Science Learning Centre North East and Durham University, was set up by academic Dr Krista McKinzey, whose background is in glaciology.

Originally, it aimed to create 20 lead schools that would spread the word, initially regionally, and eventually all over the country, on how best to embed climate change into the curriculum. In fact, more than 100 primary and secondary schools are now involved, and there is interest in the scheme from schools as far afield as the Midlands, Yorkshire and the South East.

"Children have a huge concern because of everything they see and read in the media," Ms McKinzey says. "With the world's leaders meeting for the climate change conference in Copenhagen, it will arouse their interest even further.

"It's not that they lie awake at night worrying, but they want to be actively involved in putting it right. Children tend not to think that a problem is so big that they might as well sit back and do nothing, the way adults might."

The project has produced resources for schools and offers continuing professional development for teachers to help them to process the vast amount of information that is available on the issue through the media.

At Edmondsley, topics around climate change are introduced from the nursery onwards, using simple terminology pupils can understand. Older pupils, meanwhile, will be using the Copenhagen conference as a topic for an assembly, which they will present to the rest of the school.

Rose Fletcher, a Year 3 teacher at the school, says: "Climate change can easily be implemented in a cross-curricular way, in areas such as literacy, geography, art and ICT. We began by tackling the obvious concepts of `re-use, reduce, recycle', which reinforces what pupils already knew a little about. We started turning off lights and monitoring how much energy we use. If you are teaching about climate change then you also have to be seen to be taking steps to tackle the problem.

"But we also use events in the news as resources, so where there is a natural disaster such as flood or drought, we can examine the issues. Occasionally, we might conclude there is no link to climate change, and it is just as important that in the minds of the children we make that distinction."

The trick, she says, is to broach the issue sensitively and without scaring young children into thinking that the world is about to end.

"There are some wonderful materials on the web, but a lot of it is gloom and doom. So we check and make sure they are appropriate for the age group.

"Every day we look for opportunities to plant those little climate change seeds in their minds and often they go home and discuss it with their parents."

Pupil Max Southern, 8, believes alternative energy is the way forward. "I get worried that we cause so much pollution," he says.

"We need more wind turbines and solar panels. We also need to plant more trees to cope with the carbon monoxide. I try to do my bit by growing my own vegetables at home."

At Seaton Burn College, in North Tyneside, climate change is broached mainly in geography and science. Part of the school is being rebuilt under the Government's Building Schools for the Future programme, and its ecological design will make it easier for energy consumption to be monitored by the school's eco-group.

Ryan Gill, geography teacher, attended a conference of teachers in Copenhagen last month to discuss how climate change should be taught and integrated into the curriculum, as a pre-cursor to the big event.

One group of pupils has already used the meeting of world leaders as a stimulus for debate. "We had one pupil play the role of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and the rest considering the issues that face governments. The conclusion they seemed to come to was that it was often down to the smaller countries to control emissions, when they were not the main culprits."

Levels of interest in climate change tend to vary among pupils. "For some it is at the forefront of their minds and they want to get down to the nitty-gritty, taking a very proactive role," he says. "They go around the school switching off lights and taking staff to task for wasting energy. We have some real eco-warriors here."

But not all are convinced that the future is as apocalyptic as some scientists would suggest. Matthew Fairrie, 15, says: "I don't think climate change affects me that much as an individual, but the media portrays it in a bad light without any balance. Some changes might even be beneficial, for example, the weather in some parts of the UK will become more like that in the Mediterranean."

But classmate Bridie Rutherford, also 15, disagrees. "We have so much awareness of the effects of climate change now that we can take steps to change things," she says.

"What concerns me is that while humans have the technology to protect themselves from the effects of climate change, we are destroying the natural habitats of so many creatures who can do nothing about it."

Getting pupils immersed in a focused, active debate proved fruitful for Christie Hooper, a teacher at Hatfield Heath Community Primary School in Hertfordshire. Her school got involved in a schools' project run by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), an international organisation that exists to promote the conservation of threatened plants.

Last year BGCI published a report, Plants and Climate Change: Which Future?, aimed at scientists and policymakers to show how the two were intimately connected.

As a spin-off, it launched a campaign for key stage 2 and 3 pupils called Voice Your Choice, which encourages children to explore different species and make a case for their survival, taking into account their habitats, relationships to humans and what can be done to conserve them. Ms Hooper devoted a whole day to doing the project with her Year 6 pupils earlier this year.

"I split them up into four groups and each looked at the effect of climate change on bees, trees, algae and fungi," she says. "Strangely, the algae group seemed to learn the most, perhaps because it was the subject children knew least about."

The topic crossed several subjects in the curriculum and included writing, carrying out research on computers and geography.

Each group designed a campaign to save their species and set out their case in front of the class, before a vote was taken on which presentation was the most compelling.

"When it comes to the environment, younger children tend to know and be interested in the things that affect them, otherwise they might not fully appreciate all the implications," says Ms Hooper.

"They are certainly more aware now than even a couple of years ago. Talk of climate change is all around them. Our eco-group is now represented on the school council and pupils know about energy saving and recycling.

"In the past they might not have realised that even small changes in temperature will have such a dramatic effect on living things."

Julia Willison, BGCI's head of education, said that the organisation's research had shown that teachers tackling climate change issues in the classroom tended to focus on animals rather than plants "because they are more comfortable with furry creatures".

Yet, few might be aware that up to a quarter of plant species are threatened with extinction by the end of this century.

"Given the threats that plants face and our inextricable dependency on plants, we see it as imperative that teachers incorporate into their teaching the importance of plant diversity and the need for their conservation," she says.

"Children are tomorrow's decision-makers and we need to encourage a re- evaluation of our values and behaviours, so that we can reverse biodiversity loss and deal with climate change, whether through mitigation or adaptation."

Alan Parkinson, secondary curriculum development leader at the Geographical Association, says integrating issues around climate change is not difficult, but warns against seeing it as a separate subject.

"Ideally, it will be embedded in the curriculum to subjects where it has relevance, such as geography, science and ICT," he says. "Teachers can be quite creative. For example, if they are doing a unit on tourism, they might ask their pupils to consider the implication on the environment of choosing a certain holiday destination over others.

"It helps to refer to climate change as something that will affect us into the future, as well as now, and connecting it to young people's lives."

With world leaders meeting hundreds of miles away, it helps to see how what they are learning is relevant to them



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