(Boring bit for teachers)
Climate Change in the National Curriculum (England) and GCSE specifications
Originally devised in 1987, the National Curriculm was never written with the (then distant) threat of Climate Change in mind. Revisions of the original unwieldy model have mostly been concerned with content reduction. Inevitably, the science of climate change is, at best, covered in a piecemeal way between the three disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics. The boxes below contain all relevant statements at KS3 & 4 that I could find listed in the document linked below (May, 2015). See: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study
Key Stage 3: Biology – Materials Cycles & Energy
· Photosynthesis: reactants & products, word summary for photosynthesis
· dependence of almost all life on Earth on the ability of photosynthetic organisms... to use sunlight to build organic molecules... and to maintain levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
· Cellular Respiration: aerobic & anaerobic respiration in living organisms, including the breakdown of organic molecules to enable all the other chemical processes necessary for life.
· Word summaries for aerobic & anaerobic respiration. (etc. etc.)
– Interactions and Interdependencies
· Relationships in Ecosystems: interdependence of organisms in ecosystems (food webs, pollination &c)
Key Stage 3: Chemistry - Earth and atmosphere
· the composition of the Earth
· the structure of the Earth
· the rock cycle and the formation of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks
· Earth as a source of limited resources and the efficacy of recycling
· the composition of the atmosphere
· the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the impact on climate
Key Stage 3: Physics –
· Energy: comparing amounts of energy transferred
· fuels & energy resources (very non-specific)
· Energy Transfers: Heating & thermal equilibrium... heat transfer through conduction & radiation (but NOT convection!)
· Energy in Matter: Changes with temperature in motion & spacing of particles (nearly convection!?) !)
· Space Physics: The seasons and the Earth’s tilt, day length at different times of year in different hemispheres
Key Stage 4: Biology – Cell Biology
· importance of cellular respiration, aerobic & anaerobic (as KS3)
· Photosynthesis as a key process for food production
· Ecosystems: the role of micro-organisms in cycling materials through an ecoststem
Key Stage 4: Chemistry – Earth and atmospheric science
· evidence for composition and evolution of the Earth’s atmosphere since its formation
· evidence, and uncertainties in evidence, for additional anthropogenic causes of climate change*
· potential effects of, and mitigation of, increased levels of carbon dioxide and methane on Earth’s climate
· common atmospheric pollutants: sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, particulates and their sources
· the Earth’s water resources and obtaining potable water
Key Stage 4: Physics – Energy
· conservation of energy in a closed system
· calculating energy efficiency for any energy transfers
· renewable and non-renewable energy sources used on Earth; changes in how these are used.
Physics – The Structure of Matter
· relating models of arrangements & motions of molecules in solids, liquids & gases to their densities
· melting, evaporation & sublimation as reversible changes
· calculating energy changes involved on heating - [including Specific Heat Capacity & Specific Latent Heat]
Whilst all the statements above have a role, the ones that are italicised in red have direct relevance to understanding climate change and how it may be tackled. The coverage of curriculum issues relating to climate science is, at best, patchy. A few statements that one might surely expect to find in any science curriculum, like the transfer of thermal energy by convection (essential to understanding atmospheric and ocean heat transfer), or the nature and importance of the carbon cycle, appear to be missing altogether - although I’m sure they are covered somewhere in most schools! Amongst the red italicised statements, one phrase, referring to the “uncertainties in evidence for anthropogenic causes of climate change” stands out. Perhaps a sign of how long ago it was written, as the science is now pretty universally accepted due to sheer weight of evidence.
The various Science Specifications at GCSE appear rather variable in terms of the emphasis placed on climate-related topics. I have not done an exhaustive search, nor checked every Past Paper for relevant question content, but I can make some general observations:
Content about climate change is largely limited to Chemistry Specifications (or Topics within General Science Specs), although none seem to include any attempt to explain how the greenhouse effect actually works. There is often little clear distinction between the 'natural' greenhouse effect (in which the role of water vapour is generally ignored) and the 'enhanced' greenhouse effect due to human activity. In the latter context, only CO2 is consistently mentioned, although methane (CH4) is included in several specifications - usually suggesting agriculture (?cattle) as its main source, but not sources like melting permafrost, or even natural gas exploitation. None of the Specifications mention nitrous oxide (N2O) which, in 2015 (the most recent figure I could find), was estimated as 6% of anthropogenic GHG emissions (due to land clearance and agriculture), but is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than either CO2 or CH4 .
Most Physics Specifications (with the apparent exception of Pearson?) include some references to sustainability in electricity generation (i.e. some comparison of fossil fuels with renewables) but do not generally require any detail of the physics involved in renewable generation (or transmission). Very few Specifications mentioned energy loss from buildings or, indeed, any other physics relevant to climate science.
Biology Specifications all mention the Sun as the source of energy for photosynthesis, but little more; whilst the carbon cycle is usually covered in some way, the climate effects of decay processes that produce CO2, or (more especially) CH4 , is unclear, whilst in considering the nitrogen cycle, the nature of N2O as a GHG is not mentioned.
All Specifications mention "uncertainties in evidence" (see National Curriculum summary), one even elaborates as follows (the italics are mine): "many scientists believe that human activities will cause the temperature of Earth's atmosphere to increase... (which) will result in global climate change". Surely, we are past that point now?
There is very little mention in any of the Specifications about how we might actually tackle Climate Change, other than references to renewable energy sources in Physics Specs. There may be much work needed on this if we wish to do more than impart a sense of "Climate Doom" to the younger generation.
As things currently stand, the only other subject mandated to teach about Climate Change (in England & Wales, at least) is Geography; even here, the topic seems to have been recently subsumed within the theme of "Interdependence". A quick look suggests that all Specifications include desciptions of the mechanism of atmospheric circulation and climate zones, and descibe evidence for climate change over recent geological history (glacial & interglacial episodes); explanation of the anthropogenic aspects of climate change are, however, very much left to the Science curricula. This makes for a noticeable subject disconnect; another problem is that only 40% of school students take Geography to GCSE, although all must take Science. Nationally, only a small number of students may study Climate change in more depth as part of a long-established Geology GCSE or within the recently-announced Natural History GCSE.
The following quote, from an Education Minister in a 2022 parliamentary debate (referring to a Bill that would have amended the curriculum to increase teaching about climate change) summarises the current situation: I leave others to judge whether the right course is being followed:
"While the Government agree with the sentiment of the Bill ... they do not believe that amending the curriculum is the right way to encourage pupils to learn about a sustainable environment. The subjects of citizenship*, science and geography all include content on sustainability and the environment, and schools have the autonomy to go into as much depth on these subjects as they see fit. [*Note: The N.C. for Citizenship makes no reference to Climate Change ].
We are taking action to support schools to develop further pupil knowledge and skills in relation to these very important issues. Our draft sustainability and climate change strategy, which we announced at COP 26, set out two new initiatives: the national education nature park and the climate leaders award. Together, these schemes will build on knowledge gained in the classroom to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn more about nature and biodiversity, develop key digital skills that are essential components to solving climate change and be empowered to take positive action".
On the positive side of the Minister's statement, the words "schools have the autonomy to go into as much depth on these subjects as they see fit" surely might be taken as encouragement to Science teachers to ensure that we do try to play our part fully where Climate & Sustainability Education are concerned?