Syllabus to save the planet;Opinion

17th December 1999 at 00:00
Reducing global warming is now part of the national curriculum but it will achieve little unless followed up with direct action orchestrated from the classroom, Michael Bassey argues.

SUSTAINABLE development is included in the new national curriculum. It is about improving the quality of life, through citizenship and stewardship of the earth.

Getting this into the curriculum is a major achievement for the Council for Environmental Education. At a recent annual council meeting, Jacqui Smith, the minister for schools, and Nick Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, showed the Government's enthusiasm. But when I asked Nick Tate if the new curriculum would help reduce global warming he said: "It might be a small factor but not a major determinant."

Of the many problems to be tackled if we are to achieve sustainable development, global warming is the most serious. We know that it is happening (meteorological records), we know much about how it is happening (increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect), and we know why there are increased levels of carbon dioxide (combustion of fossil fuels mainly). We have firm predictions of how it will change the earth - a warmer environment leading to more deserts, melting ice caps, raised sea levels and flooding over currently-inhabited land.

We can predict that this will lead to mass migrations (perhaps from North Africa to Europe, from Cambridgeshire to Norfolk). We also know that we could slow it down and eventually reverse the trend by drastically reducing fossil fuel consumption. But we don't know how to reduce our fossil fuel use.

The new curriculum will ensure that our children know about these things, and inevitably they will learn how inept our political systems are in responding to such problems. As it stands, the new curriculum will not ensure that they do something about it. The old recruitment slogan "What did you do in the Great War, Dad?" needs to be revamped to "What did you do about global warming, Mum and Dad?" (It should show the child asking this of perspiring parents who are standing in sea water in their living room with 10 other people).Citizenship and stewardship have properly been built into the new curriculum. They now need to be joined together by empowerment through action.

If global warming is the greatest threat to the future quality of life then it is appropriate that action should stem from young people. We should reflect on the words of Severn Cullis-Suzuki, 12, at the Rio Earth Summit 1992 conference:

"At school, you teach us to behave in the world. You teach us not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others, to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share and not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do those things you teach us not to do?"

Suppose that primary schools were inspected only on numeracy, literacy and sustainable development.Suppose that the pressure to do all the other activities came off and they became optional. Suppose that these ideas were adopted:

campaign to eliminate private car transport to and from school

more recycling of home waste

reducing the amount of food eaten in the homes of those who travel long distances

more traffic-free areas in towns and more cycle routes

Suppose that such campaigns were planned by teachers and pupils after thorough discussion in class.Even limited success would empower pupils by showing them that active citizenship can make things better.

Undoubtedly, these campaigns would cause friction.Effective in-service training for teachers should ensure that they can work successfully with the children and their parents - as part of the national drive towards sustainable development. Friction with the business world is inevitable because of a clash between school ethics (based on truth, love and community) and business ethics (based on profit and power).

This is the battlefield in the struggle to reduce global warming. To those who say children should not be involved, the answer is plain. It is their world that is threatened.

There is much talk of joined-up thinking. Links between classroom learning and environmental action could be the answer to global warming. And England, now having the most centrally controlled education system in the world, is well placed to start the global process. To harassed teachers this may sound like madness (pressures on schools must first be reduced) - but the real madness is to do too little to reduce the causes of global warming.

Michael Bassey is an emeritus

professor of education at Nottingham Trent University

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