Research Summary

Taking stock of environmental education policy in England – the what, the where and the why

Evaluating the focus of England’s environmental education policy

Environmental Education Research

To understand the evolution and current practices of environmental education (EE) within a country, it is important to look at its educational history. Education policy in particular can shed light on the current drivers and influences of EE. The history of policy also gives insight into areas that might need change. This study investigated how the relationship between educational policies and EE has shaped EE in secondary schools in England. The researchers looked at key policies and curricula in EE and specifically sought to understand how these have shaped EE in England, and what the resulting implications are for practice.

The researchers analyzed key policies and texts in five areas: national policy, local policy, the National Curriculum, schemes of work and published resources, and exam specifications. National policy texts were extracted from government policy records available online. Local policies were taken from websites of Local Government Authorities (LA) and Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) across England. The National Curriculum sets out Programmes of Study (PoS) for different age groups. The Key Stage 4 PoS (KS4) and the Key Stage 5 PoS (KS5) outline examination specifications for students aged 11-14 and 14-16 years old, respectively. The KS4 and KS5 were analyzed to understand science and geography curricula. The researchers also contacted science departments across the Greater London area for schemes of work related to KS4 and KS5, which are lesson topics listing the lesson objectives, activities, assessments, and links to resources. Lastly, the researchers looked at the three exam boards in England and their specifications for standardized tests in science and geography.

Two analytical frameworks were utilized in this study. The first framework was used to identify the purpose of EE and EE policies. The purposes were characterized as education about the environment; education in the environment, which is education being taught outside the classroom; and/or education for the environment, which enables environmental advocacy. The second framework regarded different visions for the best approach toward environmental improvement. The first vision is conservative reform, which consists of a technical approach and/or political approach and seeks environmental improvement through technological fixes and/or policies. The second vision is radical reform, which views the issue of environmental improvement as a larger problem of social inequality.

Through investigating curricula, text, and examination requirements from geography and the sciences, it was found that EE was predominately positioned as learning about the environment rather than enabling education for the environment. The discourse focused on technical/scientific environmental improvements, which resembled the vision of conservative reform. For example, out of the three examination boards, the testing specifications of only two focused on strategies to mitigate climate change. Both of those focused on conservative reform and addressed only technological advances while disregarding the social aspect of environmental issues. Additionally, the researchers found that the National Curriculum and schemes of work in geography and science focused on education about the environment and in the environment rather than for the environment.

Policies also failed to address environmental issues, sustainability, and EE. The researchers found that national policy has led to the “quieting” or leaving out of EE in policy in recent years, paralleling that of what they found in past years. In looking at local policies, the researchers concluded that the LAs and MATs demonstrated a pervasive lack of attention to EE. The websites of some LAs highlighted learning outside the classroom and none of the websites from the MATs mentioned environmental or sustainability issues. The researchers noted these policies influence what students have the opportunity to learn in the classroom. They suggested the focus on economic well-being in the country has affected such policies and any urgency put towards long-term action for a “greener” society.

The main limitation of this study is that the researchers chose specific areas of education policy to focus on and represent EE in England. This did not account for school-specific and teacher-specific curricula and teachings, which likely influence what is being taught to students. The researchers focused only on geography and the sciences to understand EE, which did not take into account other subjects that may touch on environmental issues or use methods of environmental education, such as history or social studies. Additionally, the local policies were taken from select LAs and MATs, which are not representative of all of England.

The researchers recommend developing EE policies to not just include education about or in the environment, but also education for the environment by involving advocacy and activism. The researchers suggest that conservative reform does not promote a holistic understanding of environmental issues and omits opportunities to learn for the environment. They suggest environmental education should embrace the vision of radical reform over conservative reform. In particular, a new focus on the Green Economy in EE could serve as a tool to enrichen EE.

The Bottom Line

Understanding a country’s historical and current environmental education policy is important to evaluate how environmental education (EE) is presented and gives insight into areas that might need change. The researchers analyzed key policy and texts to understand what has shaped EE in England and its implications for classroom implementation. The researchers found that EE was predominately positioned as learning about the environment and in the environment, rather than enabling education for the environment, which promotes environmental advocacy. Specifically, the key policy and texts focused on technical/scientific environmental improvements, called conservative reform, rather than framing the issue of environmental improvement as a larger problem of social inequality, called radical reform. The researchers recommend the development of EE policy beyond that of education about the environment and call for education for the environment by embracing radical reform and involving advocacy and activism.