08/05/2013 10:42 BST | Updated 07/07/2013 06:12 BST

Environmental Education Is Not a Choice - It Is an Explicit Priority

Michael Gove needs to understand that environmental education is not a choice - it is an explicit priority. And whilst you can give teachers the chance to develop their own educational structure based on broad "purposes of study," certain topics must be compulsory.

Since the consultation period ended on 16 April (2013), the new national curriculum is due to be finalised and taught to millions of pupils from September 2014. As one has come to expect of Michael Gove, the curriculum reforms have been controversial - particularly regarding the omittance of climate change education for under 14s - a term that is entirely absent from a 221 page reform document.

Whilst the Department for Education spokeswoman said the proposed changes "will in fact give pupils a deeper understanding of all climate issues," the reforms have polarised opinions on climate change and environmental education in general.

Arguably, the new curriculum is a lot more malleable than its predecessor and some have claimed that this gives teachers the freedom to teach environmental issues as and when they deem it appropriate. "Yes, it is correct that there are no specific references to climate change, but the wording is loose enough for any teacher or school to introduce climate change as a topic as early as they feel it necessary," writes Leo Hickman.

Although opportunities do exist for savy teachers to reference climate change, the issue is never implicit and those wishing to lead the classroom with their own counter-environmental agenda also have the freedom to do so. "Their removal appears political," contests Joe Smith from the Open University, "It is a melancholy fact that Mr. Gove and his Cabinet colleagues are unlikely to experience the worst of the anticipated consequences of the current lack of political vigour on environmental issues. It is the young who will get to fill in the gaps in their geography curriculum first hand across the course of their lives."

Despite the fact that outdoor education organisations are working hard to reconnect children with the environment, it's a teacher's prerogative to book field studies and bushcraft courses. Without pressure from the syllabus, there's no saying how comprehensive environment education will be and this may vary dramatically from teacher to teacher and, accordingly, from pupil to pupil.

One of the overriding questions at play here is whether teachers should be allowed to markedly tailor their lesson plans? Sure, there's no problem with deciding how you teach, but what you teach? That's a different matter altogether.

There exist a number of lessons that are essential to sustainable life on earth and these are not catered for under vague key stage guidelines. One would assume that the single-most challenging and life-threatening crisis to impact the history of humanity would not be left to chance.

While scientists compile the discernible evidence of decades of research, we need to prepare children for the uncertainty of the future. Yes, it's painful to admit how badly we've damaged our home, but in the same vein, that damage doesn't have to be irrevocable and it seems futile to wait around for undeniable proof whilst the situation worsens. The risk is simply too great.

Just as John Ashton writes, "The purpose of education is to prepare us for the challenges we will face in life. Climate change, and our success or failure in dealing with it, will be a defining challenge. A successful response would take all the major economies to a carbon-neutral energy system in little more than a generation. The social and political consequences of this transformation will be as dramatic as any we have ever experienced."

At this stage, knowing what we do and equipped with the technology to effect positive change, we need to embrace a discourse of progressive change. Without a radical U-turn in education and politics, progression will quickly descend into survival and then we will look back at this moment in history, on the threshold between destruction and revolution, and we will wonder why we didn't do more to embrace the latter cause.

Many people and organisations have echoed this sense of urgency. People and Planet, the largest student network in Britain campaigning to protect the environment, recently headed a broad coalition against the curriculum reforms, addressing Gove in a letter published in the Guardian on 23 April.

Furthermore, Esha Marwaha, a secondary school pupil from the Heathland School in Hounslow, started a petition on urging Gove to reconsider his reforms. Since it was launched a month ago, the petition has been signed by over 30,000 people. "I owe my passion for furthering the understanding of climate change to my school geography lessons," writes Esha, "I was able to understand the many issues and perspectives surrounding climate change...[and] the change to the curriculum takes away this opportunity."

The building of any curriculum is a political act (need we recall the Government's plans to develop the countryside), improving subjects of national value and diminishing those that are considered less important. However, this is a highly subjective hierarchy, hence the controversy that comes with curriculum reform.

As far back as June 2011, Tim Oates, the government's curriculum adviser, said that he wanted to move away from scientific "issues" and focus on "the science in science." This, handily, confiscates subjects of debate. Whilst climate change remains contested, to overlook a huge red warning sign in the nation's classroom is to ill-prepare a generation of children for a disaster they're due to inherit. In doing so, we are abdicating our duty to not only the next generation of environmentalists but to the planet as a whole.

Science needs to be in the public domain and it needs to be accessible. Michael Gove needs to understand that environmental education is not a choice - it is an explicit priority. And whilst you can give teachers the chance to develop their own educational structure based on broad "purposes of study," certain topics must be compulsory. It's time to disregard ideological differences and allow children to make up their own minds based on the "science in science."

via The Ecologist