Photography Heather Glazzard

What the new student-written climate education bill actually means

What does it entail? Will it change our school education? How soon could it actually happen?

by Mishti Ali
26 November 2021, 4:19pm

Photography Heather Glazzard

This week, the first ever student-written education bill was presented to UK Parliament. The English Climate Emergency Education Bill was brought forward by 25-year-old Nadia Whittome, MP for Nottingham East and youngest current member of Parliament. 17-year-old Scarlett Westbrook, a prominent youth climate activist and Teach the Future member, was one of the students involved in putting the bill together. 

During COP26, the government announced measures relating to climate change and the education sector, but stopped short of actually implementing changes to the school curriculum. Currently, climate education in the UK is limited to optional subjects like triple science or geography, with 42% of students left feeling that they have learnt “little, hardly anything, or nothing” about the environment at school. The plans would ensure that climate education is interwoven into all subjects throughout primary and secondary education, “a golden thread”, as Scarlett calls it.

“For example, [this might include] looking at how the climate crisis is going to cause food deserts in Food Technology, or looking at how colonialism caused the climate crisis in History,” says Scarlett. “It would also teach us how to deal with climate anxiety, a phenomenon which the Royal College of Psychiatrists officially recognised as a mental health problem recently.”

For teachers, this would involve undergoing training in order to obtain qualifications in climate education. Scarlett notes that, as things currently stand, 70% of teachers have not had the opportunity to do so yet. Changes would also take place within school buildings themselves, with goals to retrofit and decarbonise places of education.

So how soon could things change?

The intended changes to the curriculum and the retrofitting of schools in order to ensure that they are carbon-neutral will take time, as will making changes to the curriculum, but Nadia is fervent about the immediate potential of the bill.

“The government could start putting this in motion from tomorrow. Of course, integrating this within the national curriculum won’t be something that happens overnight, but the work can start now,” she insists. “And that work is already being done by experts across different fields. The government can draw from that wealth of knowledge and experience, including within young people themselves.”

And what does this mean for the future of climate activism?

As the first ever student-written bill to be presented in Parliament, this piece of legislation is already one which opens the routes for further breakthroughs. “The adult lives that we’re going to inherit are going to look drastically different to those that people older than us and generations before us had,” Scarlett says. “By starting with climate education, and by starting with decarbonising schools, we’re creating a legacy of climate justice. That means we can continue action, and it’s sustainable, and continuous, and, hopefully, better for education.”

For Nadia, too, the potential legacy of the bill is a key concern. “As Parliament’s youngest MP, I feel a huge amount of pride to be from this generation: the generation that put pressure on Parliament to declare a climate, economic, and ecological emergency,” she says. “But I also feel a huge amount of responsibility. It’s our generation that has to deal with the consequences of the climate crisis.”

“We’ve inherited from generations before us a system that allows transnationals to act with impunity and exploit people at the same time. We’re intent on building a better world for the generations that come after us, like the children who started school this September and won’t even be 35 by 2050. [We want] us leading healthy lives that are free of the effects of climate chaos.”

Who is supporting the bill? 

The bill has garnered support from key sponsors, including Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn and SNP MP Marie Black. Amongst the many who have thrown their support behind the Bill are three select committee chairs: Sir Philip Dunne, from the Environmental Audit subcommittee; Darren Jones, from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee; and Robert Halfon, from the Education select committee. With select committees focusing on legislation within specific areas, support from so many demonstrates the wide-reaching impacts of the climate crisis.

Layla lays out her reasoning for backing the bill clearly. “Young people across the country have been writing to their MPs, asking for this change,” she says. “They understand that the climate crisis should be at the heart of the whole of society, which includes our curriculum. Many schools do something like this but it should be all. I back this bill as an important step to encourage the DfE [Department for Education] to take this as seriously as the next generation wants them to.”

Both Scarlett and Nadia emphasise the significance of cross-party support in pushing forward the bill into reality. “With an 80 seat Tory majority, we’re extremely limited as to what we can do through Parliament,” Nadia says. “And that’s why social movements on the streets and in workplaces are so important, and [they are] where the real power is. But for that to translate into action from Parliament, we need to get cross-party support.”

“I think it’s a testament to the strength of this campaign [and] the pressure that youth activists have put on politicians. There’s now an acceptance of the climate and ecological emergency, and a realisation of the scale of the change that needs to happen. 2050, the time [by which] the world needs to reach net zero [in order to avoid climate disaster] is a hypothetical future for some of my colleagues. For our generation… that will be our reality. This is already the reality for people across the world: people who are already suffering the effects of detrimental flooding, of wildfires, of drought and famine.”

What potential obstacles does the bill face?

Ten Minute Bills [such as The Education (Climate Change and Sustainability) Bill] are bills brought forward by backbenchers, or MPs who don’t have a role in the government or shadow cabinet. As a result, they are often not taken on and made reality. 

The bill is facing its second reading soon, a pivotal step in the direction of legislation being passed, and a demonstration of the considerable support for it in Parliament already. Despite the precarity of the bill’s current position, Nadia remains optimistic about what it could mean for the future. “What we want to happen,” she says, “even if the government don’t cross it off, is for them to make a change. We’ve already seen from the movement that they’ve already made on this that the pressure is working.”

Scarlett agrees, pointing out her commonalities with Nadia: both are young, working class women of colour — identity markers which don’t necessarily work to their advantage. “If we break this down, the odds are against us,” she says. “The fact that we’ve got [cross-party] support, despite that, shows [not] just how great we’ve worked on this, but also how compelling the argument is and how much public backing we have.”

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