Education (Environment and Sustainable Citizenship) Bill [HL]

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Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
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My Lords, I offer my congratulations, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, on securing a Second Reading for his Education (Environment and Sustainable Citizenship) Bill and for securing so many Back-Bench speakers to speak last thing on a Friday.

It is a pleasure to address your Lordships as I am, as I have mentioned before, the Department for Education’s COP 26 Minister. I will be slightly unusual here and offer noble Lords a meeting to address the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Whitty and Lord Browne, with regard to the response to that. We are working at pace to make sure that what is delivered in COP is significant and displays the best of education.

To speak to the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, I have specifically mentioned that we must profile how important this is for young people with special needs and disabilities. We have an opportunity to profile to the world the inclusion of those young people in education, which, unfortunately, is not the case in many countries around the world. I heard that message loud and clear. I met with the Climate Change Committee on 10 June with the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and that was a positive meeting.

While I agree with the sentiments of the Bill, I must express my reservations on its contents. I am, unfortunately, going to disappoint noble Lords in that we believe that the national curriculum already provides pupils with the knowledge they need to help address climate change now and in the future. The subjects of citizenship, science and geography all include content on the environment. Pupils learn about what improves and harms it and how economic choices affect environmental sustainability. I have to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, that many young people already have a substantial body of knowledge around this.

Pupils are taught about weather patterns, climate zones and greenhouse gases, but noble Lords should also know that pupils are taught about how humans impact on the natural environment. This includes: the danger we pose to animal habitats—dealing with the point by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes; the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the effect that has on the climate; and how human and physical processes can work together to change landscapes, environments and the climate. The geography GCSE covers changing weather and climate, including the causes, consequences of, and responses to, extreme weather conditions and natural weather hazards. It is good news that between 2010 and 2020—partly because of the EBacc—there has been a 15% increase in the take-up of GCSE geography. To ensure that pupils have access to a higher level of study, as one noble Lord mentioned, the department has introduced an environmental science A-level.

I understand that the noble Lord is working with the Association for Citizenship Teaching to develop model lessons on climate change and sustainable citizenship that explore issues of environmental responsibility, alongside shaping and making the law. I applaud him for this excellent work. He has answered the queries made by my noble friend Lord Randall and the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza. To address the initiative that the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, mentioned, I say that more than 20,000 of England’s schools take part in Eco Schools programmes.

Schools have the autonomy to go into as much depth on these subjects as they see fit. As my noble friend Lord Hannan mentioned, they are given considerable freedom in how they teach these subjects. Pupils can also study environmental texts in English or calculate emissions from different types of vehicles in mathematics, so there is the flexibility that the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, mentioned.

I will mention one or two examples. The pupils at All Saints Catholic High School in Sheffield embed environmental sustainability messages in the textiles they develop in design and technology. Last year, during lockdown, the year 7 pupils at the Thomas Keble School in Stroud were asked to research and put into practice simple ideas to improve sustainability and the environment. These ideas ranged from water collectors to wildflower patches and improving water use in the home. The lessons were so successful that the school has decided to embed them in its citizenship teaching in future years. I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett: it is not squeezed out. The curriculum is not as narrow as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, mentioned. These are examples of what schools are doing.

Unfortunately, we know that teachers have been under incredible pressure to keep children learning during lockdown. Making any changes to the curriculum would only increase their workload. I am sure noble Lords agree that our priority is to provide stability at this time. Noble Lords will be aware that we have introduced RHSE into the curriculum. We have had feedback from teachers about needing more resources to help them teach that appropriately. There is also a short consultation about 2022 exams out at the moment. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with noble Lords: for the sake of our workforce, now is not the time to add anything to the curriculum.

Having discussed the content of the curriculum, I will talk about what the department is doing in other areas. We have established a sustainability and climate change unit. As the Minister responsible for school capital and the school estate, I point out to the noble Lords, Lord Browne and Lord Knight, that new schools are designed to be net zero by the end of this year. This is so important, because primary and secondary schools account for 25% of the UK’s total public sector building emissions. One of the first things I was told when I became a Minister in the department is that we are one of the country’s leading construction clients. It is such an important part of us meeting that 2050 target, and we take it incredibly seriously.

As part of this, the sustainability and climate change unit is exploring proposals to complement the curriculum through starting an environmental youth achievement award scheme to involve young people in efforts to understand, measure the environmental impact of and enhance the school estate. This will encourage contact and connectedness with the natural environment among young people.

We are also developing events for Youth and Empowerment Day at COP 26 in November, which we hope will give opportunities to young people and experts to exchange views and ideas and share best practice. As a country, this is an opportunity to showcase our strengths.

On the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Browne, it is pleasing to note that there was an increase of 4,000 pupils in the uptake of GCSE citizenship between 2018 and 2020. The number of specialist teachers has remained stable at around 4,000. I hope that answers the point from the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia.

On the specific question from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, we are working closely with UNESCO on sustainability and education in preparation for COP.

There were questions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Blackstone, Lady Benjamin and Lady Young of Old Scone, and the noble Lords, Lord Whitty and Lord Austin of Dudley, about the skills and post-16 work we are doing at the moment and the workforce we will need in future. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education has embedded environmental and sustainability aims in its processes to develop and update the employer-led occupational standards. Noble Lords might want to look at the Green Jobs Taskforce report published only a few days ago.

I do not believe that amending the curriculum is the right way to encourage pupils to learn about a sustainable environment. We trust our schools to instil that ethos and ability to care for others and the environment, and we have to trust our young people to learn from this and translate it into responsible citizenship.