The Minister for School Standards (Mr Robin Walker)
Thank you, Ms Ghani; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. As a Robin, it is a great pleasure to speak in a debate that has involved so much discussion of wild birds. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) on securing this very important debate. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), and I join her in welcoming Scarlett, Yasmin, Charlie, Tess and Stella to the Chamber.
Ensuring that children and young people develop knowledge about the causes and impacts of climate change and gain a broad understanding of the importance of sustainability is absolutely crucial. We have heard the passion that Members have for the subject from every party across the House.
I would like to begin this speech by recognising the huge strength of feeling on this subject across all parties. As we approach COP26, the Government are looking ahead at how we can rebuild from the pandemic and seize the opportunity to build back greener. The Prime Minister has set out an ambitious net zero strategy, building on his “The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution”, which will create and support about 440,000 of those jobs in the future. One of the things we have heard in this debate is that all jobs in the future will be affected by sustainability and the campaign against climate change. That plan is the cornerstone of our ambition to build back greener by making the UK a world leader in clean energy, ensuring that our public buildings—including schools—are energy-efficient, and protecting and restoring the natural environment.
The next generation will play a vital role in delivering that. Time and time again in the debate, we have heard about the passion of young people in our schools for this cause. I will return to that, but first I will address the topic of the debate—the national curriculum as it stands.
Many schools are already doing great things inside and outside the classroom. We have heard a real range of those today, helping people to understand climate change and sustainability. Hawthorns Primary Special School is a six-times-accredited Eco-Schools green flag school. It was good to hear the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, praising that campaign. The school incorporates a number of sustainability initiatives in its everyday classroom activities, from collecting empty crisp packets and pen cartridges for recycling to composting food waste in its wormery composter—something that the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) would support, I am sure, with his passion for growing things in schools. The school tries to raise its pupils’ awareness.
Multi-academy trusts are also doing some excellent work. Ark, for example, has a geography mastery curriculum, with knowledge of climate change and sustainability built in carefully over key stage 3, from exploring the delicate interconnections within ecosystems in year 7 to how environments are impacted by climate change in year 8 and examining coral reefs in great depth in year 9. It means that pupils can meaningfully tackle questions such as why coral reefs are intrinsically valuable, by the time they move into year 10.
High-quality comprehensive units about climate change and sustainability are also readily available to all schools through Oak National Academy. Oak has worked with teachers and subject experts during the pandemic to develop freely available resources. In geography and science, pupils may learn about the evidence for climate change, including what carbon footprint means, the definition of sustainability, what sustainable development means, and how it impacts decisions that we make in the present.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn made a valid point about teacher training and continuing professional development. Following initial teacher training, we are providing every early career teacher access to free high-quality training and support, underpinned by the early career framework. The framework was designed in consultation with the education sector and is designed to work for all early career teachers, regardless of their subject, phase or content. The training provided to deliver those programmes will build on curriculum knowledge embedded into the core content framework and has ensured that such content includes materials and exemplification applicable to all teachers, to help them deliver high-quality content, including on climate change.
The Royal Geographical Society’s young geographer of the year competition saw thousands of primary and secondary pupils in schools across the country explore how they have reconnected with their local environments and green spaces through the pandemic. There is, however, more that we can do.
As Schools Minister, I want us to do more to educate our children about the costs of environmental degradation and what we are doing to solve that, both now and in the future. Not only do our children deserve to inherit a healthy world, but they also need to be educated so that they are well prepared to live in a world affected by climate change, so that they may live sustainably and continue to fight the effects of climate change. I want us to give them the tools for the future.
That is why the national curriculum needs to be based on the findings of international best practice, to set world-class standards across all subjects—a broad, balanced and knowledge-rich curriculum that promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of people and will prepare them for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life. We want to empower the next generation to build a healthier world, with a national curriculum that expands on the good work under way to give them a rigorous education.
As hon. Members know, the national curriculum is a framework setting what the Department for Education expects all schools to cover in each subject. We trust teachers, so within that framework schools have the freedom and flexibility to determine how they deliver the content in a way that best meets the needs of their pupils. Today we have heard once again about the passion that people have to learn more about the environment and climate change. From my own school visits, I know how seriously teachers take that.
The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. A well-sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum enables pupils to master foundational context and knowledge before they move on to more complex ideas.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about Northern Ireland’s curriculum and where it references climate change. I heard what the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said about “bittiness” and I do not want to bang on too long about this, but there are of course places in the science and geography curriculum where that is already heavily built in. I reassure hon. Members that topics related to both climate change and sustainability are covered within the science national curriculum.
In primary school, pupils start by learning to understand the weather and the habitat and basic needs of animals and plants, going on to learn about how environments can change. In secondary school, they learn about the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the effects that that has on the climate, as well as about the evidence for the anthropogenic causes of climate change.
The Prime Minister has committed to cementing the UK’s position as a science superpower. Improving the quality of science teaching and increasing the number of young people who study science subjects is really important if we are to address the STEM skills shortage and to support the UK economy and its growth. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke passionately on that issue.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), who is the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, and the hon. Members for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) all spoke about skills. We recognise that the demand for STEM skills is growing. That is why we must ensure that anyone, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to pursue STEM careers. That is a Government priority, and to address it we have rolled out programmes such as the advanced mathematics support programme and the science learning partnerships, to ensure that everyone has access to high-quality STEM learning. I recognise the role of the learned community of scientific experts in engaging with the Government and providing insight, teaching ideas and resources to enhance the science learning experience and champion STEM research.
Members will recognise that geography is a hugely productive way for students to engage in the study of climate change. At primary school, during key stage 1, they are taught about the seasons and habitats, including content about daily weather patterns in the UK. Key stage 2 geography includes teaching on climate zones, and in secondary school, during key stage 3, pupils are taught about change in the climate from the ice age to the present, and how human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environment and the climate. That ensures that pupils will be taught about the temporal and spatial aspects of climate and, importantly, the role that humans play.
Teachers do an incredible job in teaching those complex lessons and I want to support them to do so. Schools and teachers have access to expert resources, advice and continuing professional development on the teaching of climate change from bodies such as the Geographical Association and the Royal Geographical Society. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) pointed out that GCSE geography is not compulsory. I recognise that, but it is welcome that take-up of it, partly as a result of the English baccalaureate, has increased by 15 percentage points from 2010 to 2020.
We want children to leave school with the knowledge, skills and values that will prepare them to be citizens in modern Britain and the Britain of the future—a green Britain. Pupils should be taught the need for mutual respect and understanding to prepare them to take their place in society as responsible citizens. Citizenship is an effective way of doing that, and at primary school pupils are taught about what improves and harms their local natural and built environment, that resources can be allocated in different ways, and that economic choices affect individuals, communities and the sustainability of the environment.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, and many Members who spoke, I have been into so many primary schools and have been hugely impressed, and indeed heavily tested on my environmental knowledge by pupils. I recognise the extraordinary work that is going on both within the curriculum and beyond. I have heard many speeches by the right hon. Member for Islington North over the years. I agreed with much more of this one than I have many of the others. Over the past few decades, there have been some really significant advances in outdoor education. I praise what I have seen of forest schools, and how they have connected many city children with nature. There has been some really welcome progress in that space.
At secondary school, pupils are taught about the roles in society played by public institutions and voluntary groups, and the way that citizens work together to improve their communities, including opportunities to participate in community volunteering. As many Members have reflected, at times the impact of climate change is likely to feel overwhelming to young people. I recognise the real concern out there, and some of the conversations that I have had in schools reflect that. Assuming that nothing can be done to tackle the problem is a big issue in progressing with a solution, and it is important that we are positive about the actions being taken, and the role that pupils can play in making a difference—as the hon. Member for Nottingham East put it so well, equipping young people with the skills to clean up a mess that was not of their making.
Schools can choose to teach pupils about the impact of so many activities and sustainable approaches, such as litter picking, to make a difference in their own environment. I think we will all have seen in our constituencies great work done under initiatives such as the Great British spring clean. I recognise that pupils in schools want us to go further. Next week, I will visit a school near my own patch, in the Rivers Church of England Academy Trust, to see how it is incorporating sustainability into its schools right across the curriculum. It invited me to see that before I joined the Department, and I am delighted to be able to go and do so as Schools Minister.
These are vital steps to give children the tools that they need for a green future, but we are also taking action, as a Department, beyond the curriculum. The DFE already takes steps to reduce its environmental impact through various policies and programmes of work, including our multibillion-pound capital school building programmes, water and energy strategies, and commercial policies that ensure that we are procuring sustainably. Our estates team is working to green the DFE estate. I recognise some of the challenges that have been set in that respect, and of course we are dealing with an estate large parts of which go back to the 1930s or even beyond, and that is hugely challenging to decarbonise, but we want to ensure that as we invest and build new buildings, they are achieving our climate targets.
We have established a sustainability and climate change unit to co-ordinate and drive activity across the Department and provide leadership on this important work across sectors. At COP26, we will be hosting a summit for Environment and Education Ministers that will bring together Ministers from across the world. There we will set out the Government’s vision and encourage others to make commitments to sustainable education, not only making schools greener but equipping young people with knowledge about their environment by providing and promoting education and training opportunities for green careers.
I was pleased to be able to promote the summit to Education Ministers from 15 high-performing countries at last week’s international summit on the teaching profession, hosted by the OECD and Education International. We will be launching a draft sustainability and climate change strategy at the Environment and Education Ministers’ summit, which will set out further details of our plans to work with the education and children’s services systems to achieve excellence in education and skills for a changing world, net zero, climate resilience and a better environment for future generations.
I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham East again for securing the debate, and I want to give her an opportunity to respond. I welcome the contributions from all parts of the House. I assure the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion that we will carefully consider the case being made for a natural history GCSE. I share the commitment that we have heard in this debate to ensuring that children and young people leave education with the knowledge they need to help them address climate change and sustainability in the future. That is why what is taught in our schools is so vital, and why the curriculum is so important.
Britain can lead the way on this issue, equipping children with the knowledge they need to invent technologies and solutions that will ultimately beat climate change and heal the planet. We are committed to preparing pupils for the challenges of the 21st century and building back greener.