“Leaky spaces for Climate Change Education are not enough for Bristol’s young people”

city hall, BristolBlog by Mrs Michelle Graffagnino, Senior Lecturer in Education, and Dr Nicola Warren-Lee, Senior Lecturer in Education.

After attending a Bristol Education Partnership Climate Change event at City Hall in Bristol, Nicola and Michelle recall the brilliance of the student contributions, the passion of the senior leaders and the ambiguity of the attending DfE representative.

City Hall in Bristol is impressive.  Even more so on a crisp autumnal morning full of enthusiastic school students armed with posters, and a cohort of beginning geography teachers ready to take their first steps into a microteaching event on climate change curriculum improvement in October 2022. The Bristol Education Partnership (BEP) had organised a climate conference to showcase individual schools’ climate change initiatives and to bring students to take part in workshops on different areas of climate action.  The School of Education, PGCE Secondary Geography group were there to support discussions on how the curriculum that students follow could be changed, improved and linked together.

Reflections on the day for school students

Young people don’t need to be told to think ’blue skies’, they just do… A snippet of their ideas from the morning includes:

  • write climate change speeches in English
  • look at the industrial revolution and link to climate change in history
  • explore the fight against climate change in France/Spain; helping to understand climate change as a worldwide issue
  • meat-free Mondays
  • Walk + Wheel; an initiative to get more people walking and cycling
  • lesson time on empowering voices; encouraging their student climate voice

Full of ideas, they heard from Mya-Rose Craig in the afternoon whose recently published book ‘We Have a Dream’ speaks of Indigenous people and people of colour who are disproportionately affected by climate change, yet often are not heard in global conversations.

The opportunity then came for a speaker from each school group to voice their concerns and offer strategies to the audience in the Grand Council Chamber at City Hall.  The students were passionate and articulate in voicing their aspirations for climate change to be at the heart of the curriculum, school and wider communities. The school students, representing the 14 BEP schools, ended the day by listening to Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, discussing council-led initiatives and how each city and their communities should be the focus of grassroots climate change initiatives to have the impact needed at a global scale.

Reflections on the views of senior school leaders

What was clear from attending the working lunch with senior leaders of the BEP schools is that there are different priorities across very different contexts. In feedback to the Bristol City Council, some school leaders present wanted quicker planning permission to make school site changes, some wanted acknowledgement that the current government showed complete ignorance of the day-to-day concerns of their student population, including their climate anxieties. One headteacher suggested they (the BEP) collectively reject some of the government guidance on what to teach/what not to teach (referring to guidance on being apolitical in classrooms).  Senior leaders present suggested taking a ‘Bristol Approach’ to the curriculum, featuring social justice and climate concerns at the heart. For our part, we spoke of a climate curriculum in schools which was research informed, joined-up and incremental. We emphasised it is not a case of a one size fits all approach, instead each school’s Climate Change Curriculum should include the context of its young people and their communities. The Climate Change Education Research Network (CCERN) was (re)introduced and all senior leaders showed interested in working with academics from the University of Bristol in helping to shape their school curricula going forwards. This is something we have trialled and hope to develop further (see Cabot climate project).

Bristol’s One City Climate Strategy states that, ‘We will move faster than the national average, learning with other cities on our journey. This strategy sets the vision for where we need to be in 2030 based on sound science’.  It is clear that Bristol’s schools must lead the way in creating and modelling a ‘fit for the future’ curriculum, one which uses robust and available research evidence on climate change and climate change education. This is something which we, as a university, are calling for as well (please see PolicyBristol).

Reflections on the views of a strategic lead

In attendance was Jonathan Clear, Chief Sustainability Officer at the Department for Education, who agreed to join the climate conference to hear the students’ ideas and to find out more about what Bristol is doing in response to the climate crisis. He spoke of “flexibility in the curriculum” to deliver a quality climate change education for Bristol’s young people. National curriculum documents that are “slow to change”, as he put it, can be enriched and enhanced by utilising this flexibility. Orchard et al. (2016) encourage teachers to discover and create ‘leaky spaces’ in the curriculum to explore and reflect on normative ethical inquiry – we wondered if Jonathan was referring to something similar.  If so, this raises many questions:

  • How do (head)teachers know when, where and how to flex their 950 (ish) hours of curriculum time across the year to ensure the students are ready for living in, and positively contributing to, life in a net zero world?
  • Aren’t all of the ‘leaky spaces’ often taken up with a knowledge-rich (heavy?) curriculum, post-pandemic literacy interventions, and an increasing need to evidence certain types of performance, etc.?
  • Doesn’t leaving climate education down to inclination seem irresponsible and woefully inadequate?

Jonathan Clear has agreed to attend a future CCERN meeting so perhaps we can follow up these questions with him in the near future.

Authors: Michelle Graffagnino and Nicola Warren-Lee, School of Education

Many thanks to Dr Lucy Wenham and Dr Simon Brownhill for their encouragement to write a blog via the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Curriculum

This article was originally published on the Research Centre for Teaching, Learning and Curriculum (TLC) blog: https://ctlc.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2022/11/01/leaky-spaces-for-climate-change-education-are-not-enough-for-bristols-young-people/