A Curriculum for People and Planet

By Jenny Rhodes

Today’s schoolchildren will be adults in the 2030s, and will probably face serious issues due to the climate and ecological emergency. Are we equipping them with the knowledge they need for this? Society must recognise that young people want to know. The primary national curriculum says school must prepare pupils for ‘the responsibilities of later life’, and provide ‘the essential knowledge… to be educated citizens’ but what is more essential than safeguarding their actual future? We teach children about consequences of their behaviour towards others; why not about the impacts of our way of life on the planet?

These days, we seem to inhabit a ‘human bubble’, collecting possessions and giving no thought to how they were produced or what happens after we discard them; or what effect it all has on wildlife and habitats. We need to be aware of not only the ‘here and now’, but also ‘the before and after’, origins and consequences of consumption, and the all-round impact of human activity on other life-forms. 

The curriculum needs reimagining with these cross-curricular strands. All provide opportunities to  develop speaking, reading and writing; vital because communication with others will be crucial.

  • Our School: Taking responsibility for their school and grounds; learning about its environmental impact. This could involve auditing energy use, researching insulation and renewables, being involved in energy capture projects (school turbine) or water conservation methods (rainwater harvesting). Understanding in maths, science and the technology of sustainability could be gained.
  • Our Neighbourhood: Learning about the local area and how to enhance it. This could include managing projects like litter and pollution reduction schemes, planting trees and flowers, creating a school travel plan, planning cyclist/ pedestrian routes and doing bike training.  ‘Taking ownership’ of their locality would help build civic pride. Maths and design would be developed, and teamwork would build personal and social skills.
  • Our Belongings: Studying how products are made, what happens to them after use and how this impacts the environment. Students would learn the consequences of using up limited resources; reduce and manage school waste by recycling and composting; and repair or repurpose items in a sewing room or workshop. They would understand how wasteful society is; know the Waste Hierarchy; and appreciate the difference between needing and wanting something. ICT and design technology could be taught through this.
  • Our Food: Understanding food production, maintaining a school garden, growing crops for school, cooking healthy food and assessing the impact of eating meat. Pupils would have opportunities to investigate how food gets from farm to fork, following a product from being grown or reared to being manufactured, sold and eaten. This could develop science and health knowledge, and practical cooking skills.
  • Our Bodies and Minds: Learning how to look after mental and physical wellbeing through exercise, creativity, teamwork or connecting with nature. Students would reap the benefits of being in nature; learning gratitude and mindfulness. They could study how leisure activities have varying carbon footprints, e.g. local bike rides are low-impact compared to driving to the beach to waterski behind a speedboat! P.E. is derived from this.
  • Our Planet: Observing and enjoying the environment; understanding biodiversity, ecosystems and the mutual interdependence of all life. This connects the young person to their world, to see the human place within it, not apart from or over it. Children need to recognise that nature ‘recycles’ everything natural when it dies (unlike human inventions which often end up in landfill or sea). More time should be outdoors, increasing awareness of seasons and weather. They must also learn about managing risk: what is safe and unsafe. It could include much science and geography.
  • Our History and Future: Only humans live massively differently to their past; other species have had the same lives and impact for millennia. Pupils should be taught how people used to live as hunter gatherers, farmers and craftspeople making just what they needed and having little impact on the planet. Students must be taught how the climate crisis came about, what we can do about it, and what their lives and jobs will be like because of it. They also need to comprehend different countries’ comparative impacts on, and differences in suffering from, global warming, and how the wealthier nations bear a responsibility to help others to develop in sustainable ways.  This could incorporate history, geography and other humanities.

The OECD paper, ‘The Future of Education & Skills: Education 2030’ says: “We are committed to helping every learner…fulfil his or her potential and help shape a shared future built on the well-being of individuals, communities and the planet. Children […] need to abandon the notion that resources are limitless and are there to be exploited; they will need to value common prosperity, sustainability and well-being. They will need to be responsible and empowered, placing collaboration above division, and sustainability above short-term gain.”

Caring about your environment, and learning responsibility, must be at the core of what schools do. How we prepare children for the future should be how we measure schools’ success, not by exams. We need a curriculum like this now, and teachers will need adequate training to deliver it.

Jenny Rhodes was a primary school teacher for many years, and believes that children need to be properly prepared for the challenges of the future.