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Background

The curriculum in England

Issues relevant to climate change are included on the National Curriculum.  Academies and free schools (a majority of secondary schools in England) are not required to teach the National Curriculum, although many do.

General information on the last curriculum review (carried out under the Coalition Government) is available in the Library briefing The school curriculum in England, SN6798.

To give an indication of what is included on the curriculum, the relevant specifications on the curriculum in Science and Geography include the teaching of:

Science (compulsory at key stages 3 and 4)

Key stage 3

  • the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the impact on climate

Key stage 4

  • evidence, and uncertainties in evidence, for additional anthropogenic causes of climate change
  • potential effects of, and mitigation of, increased levels of carbon dioxide and methane on the Earth’s climate

Geography (compulsory at key stage 3)

Key stage 3

  • physical geography relating to: geological timescales and plate tectonics; rocks, weathering and soils; weather and climate, including the change in climate from the Ice Age to the present; and glaciation, hydrology and coasts
  • understand how human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environments and the climate; and how human activity relies on the effective functioning of natural systems

Key Stage 4: GCSE subject specification from 2016 (not compulsory)

Changing weather and climate – The causes, consequences of and responses to extreme weather conditions and natural weather hazards, recognising their changing distribution in time and space and drawing on an understanding of the global circulation of the atmosphere. The spatial and temporal characteristics, of climatic change and evidence for different causes, including human activity, from the beginning of the Quaternary period (2.6 million years ago) to the present day.

Scotland

The Curriculum for Excellence in place in Scotland includes various aspects through which children are expected to learn about climate change between ages 3 and 15.

As set out in a Scottish Government briefing on climate change in education, climate change is addressed through combining experiences and outcomes across curriculum areas in a variety of contexts as part of the theme of Learning for Sustainability. The briefing states the aim that climate change is “embedded within the learning experiences of children and young people within the broad general education of Curriculum for Excellence.”

In terms of the curriculum, this is reflected in various curriculum experiences under broader topics:

  • Sciences: Planet Earth
  • Technologies – Technological developments in society and business
  • Social studies – People, place and environment
  • Health and wellbeing – Mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing
  • Religious and moral education – development of beliefs and values

These topics are expected to cover, for example, the carbon cycle and processes driving climate change; analysing products taking into consideration sustainability, scientific and technological developments; identifying threats facing the main climate zones; developing an increasing awareness and understanding of one’s own beliefs and putting them into action in positive ways.

Wales

The curriculum in Wales is currently being reformed, with a new curriculum being introduced from September 2022.

The revised Curriculum for Wales is divided into Areas of Learning and Experience, within which children may be taught about climate change. The curriculum requires schools to design their own curriculum and assessment arrangements within these areas, rather than providing a defined list of requirements. Nonetheless, some information is provided on what may be taught in particular areas.

With the Science and Technology area, students might be taught:

  • the impact of science and technology on society and the evaluation of evidence of this, including in the context of the climate emergency
  • to evaluate scientific and technological developments in relation to the climate emergency can lead to understanding the relationships between science, personal agency, government action and economic factors here in Wales and at an international level.

In the Geography aspect of the Humanities area, a school’s curriculum should:

  • provide a rich context for exploring the issues of sustainability, climate change, energy choices, and other areas

The Humanities guidance also notes that:

  • The climate emergency can be better appreciated by exploring the industrial revolution, the distinct geography and topography of Wales, and international relations.

Northern Ireland

The curriculum in Northern Ireland includes a range of opportunities for children to be taught about climate change and sustainability issues.

For example, during Key Stage 3, there are statutory requirements, as well as non-statutory guidance, on the curriculum in Geography and Science that covers relevant issues.

The Geography Key Stage 3 statutory requirements include that pupils should:

Investigate the impact of conflict between social, economic and environmental needs both locally and globally, for example, erosion, flooding, pollution, loss of biodiversity, climate change, desertification, deforestation etc

Statutory requirements in Science at Key Stage 3 include:

Investigat[ing] the effects of pollution, for example, water, air, land, sound etc and specific measures to improve and protect the environment, for example, renewable energy, efficient use of resources and waste minimisation etc

Non-statutory guidance on science at Key Stage 3 also includes, for instance, a suggestion that pupils as part of their learning “Think through long term implications of, for example, climate change and reduced biodiversity.”


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