Education (Environment and Sustainable Citizenship) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Education (Environment and Sustainable Citizenship) Bill [HL]

(2nd reading)
Baroness Blackstone Excerpts
Friday 16th July 2021

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Education
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP) [V]
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and his powerful contribution. I must begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, for all his work on this Bill and his powerful, persuasive introduction to it today.

I possibly had the best introduction I could have had to this, unexpectedly doing two sessions of Learn with the Lords this morning. As I was speaking to those young people, I said what I often do: “On behalf of my generation, I am sorry to your generation for the mess we have made of things.” One of the reasons for that is that we have had an education system that has failed to explain to people—and a whole academic system that failed to understand—the nature of the world and the physical limits of this one fragile planet. But we now have the knowledge, and we have to make sure it is available to everyone. One of the pupils from Birchensale Middle School in Worcester asked me a very good question: “How can you Lords represent me?” Of course, the answer is we cannot. None of us knows what it is like to be a 14 year-old today. Think about what that 14 year-old’s life experience is like. We have to equip those young people with the knowledge and skills to work together with all the generations to build a society that works, functions and is truly sustainable.

I particularly commend the Bill’s focus on care. It encourages a notion of care—for oneself, for others and for the planet. That is such a contrast to the way our education system is being directed now, which is towards competition towards exams. The Bill is a step in the direction of something different. I speak in lots of schools, colleges and universities and attended, in pre-Covid times, lots of climate strikes. Lots of young people have managed to educate themselves; lots of teachers manage to squeeze in space for speakers like me to have debates to get students engaged and involved. But that is in gaps between the essential cramming for exam preparation. This has to be central.

Lots of good work is being done by the RSPB reaching 200,000 pupils a year, by Oxfam reaching 900,000 pupils, and by Reboot the Future reaching 15,000 teachers a year. These are good schemes, but they cannot be enough. We need legislation; we need a national change in approach to understand that we can live within the physical limits of this one fragile planet. We have to. That requires a co-operative understanding of the nature of our world.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, recent research has shown that 39% of nine to 18 year-olds thought they had learned little, hardly anything or nothing about the environment at school, and 71% said they would like to learn more. There is both a large gap in what young people have learned and a huge appetite to learn more. They also want to know what they themselves need to do to help protect the planet and thrive in a biodiverse and sustainable world.

In a year in which the UK hosts COP 26, we need to demonstrate our commitment to education and climate change and at least match what our co-host, Italy, is doing on sustainable citizenship provision. Our claim to want to be a global leader will be an empty one if the Government fail to take action. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth on his timeliness in introducing the Bill and his passion in doing so.

I hope when the Minister replies she will not say that the curriculum already covers environmental issues adequately, because it is simply not true. Current provision is piecemeal, with the issue covered in science subjects and geography, but not embedded in the curriculum as it should be—a point made by Ofsted, which has found it is often just an add-on.

In 2019 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on scaling up education for sustainable development, and UNESCO has now set a new target to make environment education a core curriculum component in all countries by 2025. Can the Minister tell the House how the Government are responding to UNESCO on this target?

My noble friend Lord Knight mentioned the views of teachers. Is the Minister aware of them? More than two-thirds of them think there should be more teaching on climate change in our schools, and nearly 90% say it should be compulsory—yet three-quarters of the teachers surveyed say they do not have adequate training in this area. There is not just a need to change initial teacher training; in-service programmes are urgently required for existing teachers. What discussions are taking place with providers on laying on these courses?

We have an admirable goal to reach net zero by 2050, but we risk not achieving it if we do not ensure that our population both understand the threat and know what actions are needed to reach this goal. It requires encouraging the right mindset about caring for the natural environment in the interests of present and future generations. It means instilling acceptance that behavioural change is necessary.

To give just one example, the Committee on Climate Change found that 62% of the reduction in energy consumption needed to meet our targets requires behavioural change. In this context it is not surprising that the committee said that reform of the Government’s education and skills framework should be a priority in 2021.

Starting to engage people when they are young, ready to learn and not set in their ways must be the right approach, so I strongly commend the Bill’s proposals on both the secondary curriculum and updating the teaching of citizenship, which, as my noble friend Lord Blunkett said, is so important.

Lord Randall of Uxbridge Portrait Lord Randall of Uxbridge (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I am pleased to welcome this Bill and its very worthy aims, so passionately introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. I declare my environmental and conservation interests as in the register, particularly as a council member of the RSPB and chair of the Essex Climate Action Commission. I am also a member of Peers for the Planet and have had the pleasure of working on these issues with Jamie Agombar, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, in his opening speech.

It is my greatest fortune to have had an engagement with nature since my earliest days. I want as many people as possible to have that wonderful experience. Of course, now there is a real need to be aware of what my generation has done—and, indeed, left undone.

I have had the great opportunity over recent years to visit a good number of schools, and I can honestly say that the enthusiasm for learning about climate change and the nature crisis is extremely high. Whether that is reflected in all schools I cannot say—although we have heard some interesting statistics—but, to judge by those I have been in contact with, there is nothing but a very strong appetite. I think that is pretty universal.

Only last Friday I was part of a panel involved in a “Dragons’ Den”-style event for the Vanguard Learning Trust, a group of both primary and secondary schools in the London Borough of Hillingdon. Each school had held its own competition to find a project to represent the school, with the aim of reducing the school’s carbon footprint and improving its environmental profile. A generous donation from ACS International School Hillingdon enabled the schools to bid for extra funding to upgrade their projects. I pay tribute in particular to the trust’s principal, Martina Lecky, for coming forward with such an innovative idea that really engaged the pupils. I was really impressed by all the projects and look forward to seeing them progress, particularly the beehives at Ruislip High School.

I have a few questions about the Bill. The first, as just enunciated by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, is how we ensure that teachers have adequate training and access to reliable resources to teach the subject to the level it deserves. I would love to see how schools can benefit from modern technology to engage with young people around the world, some at the very front line of climate change.

Finally, unless I have misunderstood the measures, they would be confined to secondary schools. I believe that primary school pupils are also immensely interested in and engaged in the climate issue and—just as importantly, in my opinion—in the crisis facing our natural world. As far as I can see, it is never too early to engage our young people in what will probably—almost certainly—be the biggest challenge that new generations face, because of our failures. I therefore commend the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, on bringing the Bill forward and wish it well.