PR smokescreen cannot hide the holes in climate teaching proposals

Bob Ward, policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, has an article in the Guardian criticising the proposals for the role of climate change in the new national curriculum and lambasting what he sees as a PR smokescreen from Michael Gove and his advisors on the issue…

The Department for Education this month ended a consultation on its controversial proposals for the national curriculum amid protests about its plans to cut back on the teaching of climate change.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, launched his review of the curriculum in January 2011, but it has been beset by problems and delays, including complaints about of a lack of transparency and resignation threats from key advisers. It has also been hit by criticisms over suggestions that climate change would be omitted from a new slimmed-down version of the curriculum, which would be taught in English schools from September 2014.

In June 2011, Tim Oates, who led the national curriculum review expert panel, told the Guardian that climate change should not be compulsory for school lessons, on the grounds that it was a “topical issue”.

Shortly after, Gove made the same point in an interview in the Times:

“One of the problems we have had with science in the past is that people have said ‘in order to make science relevant you’ve got to link it to things which are contemporary’ – climate change or food scares – but … what they need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.”The trouble for Oates and Gove is that they were displaying an utter ignorance of the history of science. The study of climate change is much older than the discovery of plate tectonics or the structure of DNA, for instance, with Svante Arrhenius in 1896 publishing the first calculations of how much global warming will occur as the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase.

After much delay, the Department for Education published in February 2013 details of the stripped down curriculum at key stages 1-3, for pupils up to age 14.

Climate change has been all but removed. It is explicitly referred to only in the programme of study for science in KS3 chemistry, which states that pupils should be taught about “the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the impact on climate”.

This is more specific than the current national curriculum for science, introduced in 2007, which states that courses should include “human activity and natural processes can lead to changes in the environment” and describes pupils’ performance as exceptional if they “describe and explain the importance of a wide range of applications and implications of science in familiar and unfamiliar contexts, such as addressing problems arising from global climate change”.

And at KS4, the new national curriculum for science includes “carbon dioxide and methane as greenhouse gases”, and, bizarrely, “carbon capture and storage”, while ignoring all other methods of emissions reduction, such as renewables.

However, the new national curriculum for geography omits any explicit reference to climate change, indicating only that pupils should be taught about “weather and climate”. In contrast, current KS3 geography is expected to cover “interactions between people and their environments, including causes and consequences of these interactions, and how to plan for and manage their future impact”. These lessons “should include the investigation of climate change”, during which pupils learn about “how their consumption of energy has a global impact on physical systems such as climate”.

Given these radical changes, it was perhaps not surprising that learned societies and universities have objected to the cuts to climate change teaching and the removal of any reference to its societal impacts or ways of tackling it through mitigation and adaptation…

The article concludes…

If Gove continues to ignore our warnings about the deficiencies in his proposals, the new national curriculum will end up failing to provide pupils with the essential knowledge, skills and understanding that they need to be educated citizens.

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