Most parents think that children should be taught about climate change in school, but teachers and pupils say the issue is not covered enough in schools – with students resorting to finding their information on social media.
A poll by Public First of more than 1,000 parents of school-aged children found that 50% said climate change was the most important issue to children, while 42% said their child had spoken to them about protecting the environment.
Climate change was discussed with parents much more than other political issues, with just 13% of parents reporting that their child had discussed immigration with them, while 15% said their child had talked to them about Brexit.
In focus groups for the study, carried out for University College London’s Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education, teachers said that pupils were much more aware of climate change than older generations.
Most parents – 84% – said that their children should be taught about climate change, and the majority also wanted their child to learn about the topic at school (72%) – whereas just 37% thought their child should learn about climate change from books, and 11% said that children should learn about the topic from social media.
Teachers said early exposure to climate change education was important for children, but warned that if the topic was not covered in schools, pupils could turn to online sources and be misinformed.
“I think there is a wealth of information that is easily accessible, but unless it is the top hit on Google and the first click that students go to, there’s a real danger that they’re getting a potentially biased opinion,” a secondary assistant head from the North West told researchers.
While most parents (69%) thought that their child had been taught about climate change in school, some pupils and teachers said it had been years since they had had a lesson on the environment.
One secondary teacher said that climate change education “may be a tick box, a one-lesson thing, if that”.
One pupil said: “Where I get most of my information from is online and social media because even though it’s pushed in my school, they’re not really doing anything. They just mention it every once in a while.”
Teachers said they worried this meant that climate change would be seen as a social media “trend”, with young people losing interest in the topic as other issues such as Covid came to the fore.
One teacher said there could even be a risk that young people would avoid discussing climate change because they were so anxious about other issues post-Covid that they “don’t really have the capacity at the moment to think about something like climate change” and were simply “trying to get through the day”.
Teachers also said they needed to be more informed about climate change themselves in order to be confident in teaching it.
They also raised concerns that while it was important for children to understand climate change, they were worried that without the right resources it could “just add to students’ already high anxiety levels and feed into a general feeling of hopelessness”.
A student in the West Midlands said: “I think a lot of young people are aware, and there is consensus to do your bit. But a lot of the time, it just feels out of your control.
“We’re not the policymakers, we can’t stop the big corporations that contribute more to the crisis than we do in our whole lives. It just feels disproportionate.”
Julie McCulloch, policy director at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Teaching about the environment is already part of various aspects of the existing curriculum, for example, through subjects such as geography.”
She added that there was “tremendous appetite” among young people for the topic to feature more in the curriculum, but that “it would not be possible to do this by adding to the existing curriculum because it is already very crowded and timetables are packed”, adding that ASCL would prefer to see a “holistic review” of the school curriculum.
Professor Nicola Walsh, executive director of the UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education, said that young people wanted to hear more about climate change but currently did not feel they had “enough in terms of quantity but also breadth across the curriculum” at school.
She added that teachers were keen to cover the topic more, but that “when you then speak to school leaders it becomes more of a challenge in terms of being able to have the capacity and resource to focus on that”.
“It’s not necessarily within the metrics that they’re accountable for and therefore it’s harder for school leaders to fully integrate it across the curriculum within the current systems that we’re working within,” she added.