Environment & energy, Government and governance, Education | Australia

5 February 2020

Learning about climate change from an early age will be crucial for future generations to tackle the problems it presents, but education policies are falling silent on the issue, Annette Gough writes.

In December 2019, as large areas of New South Wales burned and cities were choked with smoke, and while the Australian government delegation at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid was subverting international efforts to address climate change, Australia’s education ministers were convened in Alice Springs, launching the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration.

This Declaration removed the references to climate change and integrating sustainability across the curriculum that had been in the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians. In doing so, it shut down recognition of the importance of discussing climate change as a complex environmental, social, and economic issue in schools.

This silencing of discussions about climate change and sustainability is particularly concerning, as Australia is a signatory to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include goals for both action on climate change and education.

More on this: How we discovered the climate problem

However, it is also not surprising given that Australia’s 2018 voluntary national review report on progress towards the SDGs does not mention climate change, and education is only mentioned in an omnibus of areas where Australia provides development assistance, not in relation to Australian schools.

The need for Australian school students to learn about the environment was included in the first national education declaration, the 1989 Hobart Declaration on Schooling. This included as one of the 10 goals, “an understanding of, and concern for, balanced development and the global environment and complex environmental and social challenges”. The 1989 Declaration also launched Mathematics, Science, Technology, and English Literacy as the key areas of a national curriculum.

The 1999 Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century moved recognition of complex environmental and social challenges to the preamble, and added a new goal, that students should have “an understanding of, and concern for, stewardship of the natural environment, and the knowledge and skills to contribute to ecologically sustainable development”.

The 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians expanded on the environmental content of the Adelaide Declaration and recognised the unprecedented challenges posed by climate change.

More on this: Globalising education

Here, the preamble noted new demands on Australian education, including “Complex environmental, social and economic pressures such as climate change that extend beyond national borders pose unprecedented challenges, requiring countries to work together in new ways”.

The goal to accompany this statement was for students to become “active and informed members of the community who … have empathy for the circumstances of others and work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments”, and the associated action was a resolution that “a focus on environmental sustainability will be integrated across the curriculum”.

Although sustainability was included as a cross-curriculum priority in the Australian Curriculum, its place within the curriculum is haphazard, and generally develops a shallow understanding of sustainability, if it is covered at all.

Specific climate change education is also absent. As Hilary Whitehouse and Larraine Larri recently commented, “We can find no explicit mention of climate change in the primary curriculum, though students learn related topics on endangered species, renewable energy, and natural disasters”. There are some mentions in Years 7 to 10 in the humanities, geography, and science, but some are in optional subjects.

The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration, which replaced the Melbourne Declaration in December 2019, however, simply sees education as preparing “young people to thrive in a time of rapid social and technological change, and complex environmental, social and economic challenges”, and repeats the goal from the Melbourne Declaration. It is silent on climate change, and reduces consideration of sustainability in the curriculum to encouraging students to “engage with complex ethical issues and concepts such as sustainability”.

The environment has long been treated by policymakers and politicians as a political priority rather than an educational one, but at a time when the climate emergency is upon us, and Australia is a signatory, not just to the SDGs but also the Paris Agreement, which included climate change education as an action area in the associated work program, it would seem time for climate change education to become an education priority in Australia.

Indeed, in that Paris Agreement work program, Australia agreed to develop extensive climate change education policies. Instead, climate change has been ignored in our national education agenda at a time when it is most desperately needed.

Education Minister Dan Tehan claims that the Mparntwe Declaration is “prioritising the needs of our First Nations children and Australia’s remote and regional students” but, in the same week, the Mparntwe people were telling The Guardian that climate change is a threat to their survival. The government is not prioritising their needs by ignoring climate change.

The new Declaration’s silence on climate change means that students will have to rely on their principals, teachers, parents, and peers for their learning about the climate emergency and what they can do. It is no wonder then that they are taking to the streets while the government ignores the obvious.

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One Response

  1. Larraine J Larri says:

    Thank you Prof. Gough for your succinct summary of the current situation in Australian educational policy. Many of us working in sustainability education were eagerly waiting for the next Australian Education Declaration, hoping that it would provide a strengthened imprimatur for our work. These declarations have been landmarks in educational policy providing leadership and direction. Instead we now have something that leaves us to the ongoing mercy of obfuscation, denialism and worse – business as usual. Teachers begin 2020 with so many of their students (their families, communities and themselves) severely affected by traumas caused by catastrophic bushfires and now flooding. It has never been a secret that anthropogenic climate change would be the cause of extremes. At the very least we need curriculum to engage students in disaster risk reduction and resilience education. We also need to enable our teachers to manage climate affected trauma. Surely we have learnt only too well from recent experience that pretending the problem doesn’t exist really does not work! I call on educators to lobby for an urgent revision of the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration.

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