The term ‘climate change’ is not in the secondary A-level geography curriculum – but we can support its teaching in our schools

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A few weeks back, in association with Low Carbon West Oxford (instigators of the KidsCAN initiative), the Environmental Change Institute / School of Geography hosted Professor Martin Evans, Chair of the A Level Content Advisory Board Geography panel 2014-2015, and Chair of the Conference of Heads of Geography in Higher Education since 2016.  The topic of his lecture: teaching goegraphy in a time of climate crisis.  Here are some things we learned:


There is no point in waiting for an updated geography curriculum – it won’t be redone for around a decade, and even when it is, it will be tweaks rather than huge change…

Professor Evans started his talk with a quick overview of the convoluted and long-ish (several years) process which ‘makes’ the geography curriculum, when it goes through a revision.  The most recent tweaks to the curriculum were finanlised in the years 2014-2016, first taught in September 2016, and first examined in 2018.  The next revision is due to be done in 2024, and that is aoonly the starting point for what will again be a drawn-out process, as it travels through consultations, approvals, and around the geography community.  In addition to a new curriculum not being imminent in our classrooms, Professor Evans was keen to stress that the process is an evolution and not a revolution – so even once it is updated, we shouldn’t hold our collective breath for anything particularly new.  The A-level geography curriculum is ‘not a place of radical innovation’.

In fact, teachers are likely to feel it is already moving fast enough, so calls for bringing forward an update are unlikely to be popular with the teaching community.

The term ‘climate change’ is not in the A-Level geography curriculum

The structure of the curriculum is 4 topics, in combination with a list of key concepts which have to be covered.  This list does not include ‘climate change’.  It does, however, as Professor Evans, pointed out, cover it indirectly – ‘sustainability’, ‘inequality’, ‘carbon cycle’ etc. In a moment which led to many an incredulous expression, Professor Evans speculated that the current curriculum in fact perhaps only got through the approval process because it does not mention ‘climate change’ directly, as inclusion of those words might have been considered ‘too political’.

The key to bringing the climate emergency into A-level geography is to use it to illustrate the listed key concepts which have to be covered – and how and whether to do that is up to the individual teacher

Professor Evans went on to provide a number of examples of how, when and where this might be done, should a teacher wish to bring the climate emergency into the lesson.


Key concept: ‘thresholds’/’tipping points’

Way to include it: use the planetary boundaries concept to illustrate (Rokstrom et al 2009)


Key concept: ‘feedback’

Way to include it:  Amazon savannisation.  The Amazon rainforest needs rain to produce trees; it also needs trees to produce the rain, and roughly 30% of its own rainfall is produced by tree transpiration.  At 40% deforestation, the is the danger of savannisation.  This is a feedback loop as less trees –> less rain –> less trees; and in turn, it will become a net carbon-producing source instead of a sink.

The A-level project is also an opportunity to bring in climate change

Another part of the A-level is for students to do a project – and again, this is an opportunity to focus on climate.  Examples used:

  • A project to explore the temperature of a space relative to its proximity of green space, which can be easily tested.  This is very useful where there is a risk of heat stress, as green space actually REDUCES heat.  47% of London is ‘green’, and this cools the capital by 0.5 degrees C.
  • A project looking at sustainable urban drainage – very relevant for Oxford.

The oweness is on the teacher – so creating good teaching materials for them is one way forward

So, what is clear is that there is plenty of scope for bringing climate change in, but that in itself, it is not a mandatory topic;  how much and how well it is covered is therefore down to the individual interests and knowledge of the teacher.  For those of us who are concerned with the lack of coverage and keen for the next generation to get the education they want and need on the subject, a powerful thing we can be doing to is to create good, solid teahcing materials for A-level teachers.  Resources like ‘Maths for Planet Earth, or like our Kids CAN resources (albeit for a much younger audience), are a great way to support time-poor teachers searching for curriculum-compliant materials to use with their students.

Italy have introduced climate classes for all, by putting it under citizenship; however Geography A-level still represents an opportunity for some key learning in understanding the climate crisis

You may have heard that Italy is making climate change classes manadatory for all, with an hour a week devoted to the topic starting next academic year.  This is obviously a step to be commended, although we should reserve judgement on what the sessions will actually provide in reality.  An hour a week is not much time, and we also hope it will be framed carefully to minimise distress and maximise empowerment.

As he closed his talk, Professor Evans said that he personally is not a fan of the ‘curricula for survival’, with its doom-laden, pessimistic framing.  He prefers the ‘we broke it and we can fix it’ message; and he hopes teachers can use the curriculum as an effective means (and fantastic opportunity) to engage the annual 34k+ A-level geography students in understanding the natural and human processes underpinning the concept of the climate emergency.  For those wishing to support the cause of adequate – and in fact BRILLIANT (for surely that is what we should be aiming for!) climate education for the next generation, this whistlestop tour of how the curriculum is made and can be used highlighted the power of producing resources, and supporting and enabling the UK’s geography teachers to share materials and best practice.

Let’s also create opportunities for young people outside the school system to learn about climate change in a way that is informative, safe and empowering

The lack of climate change in the secondary curriculum is why providing for interested individuals outside of the school environment is also crucial.  LCWO/KidsCAN is really pleased to be working with Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Dr Kim Polgreen of Leadership in Global Change, the Oxford Hub and Dr Cecile Girardin on a new Climate Club for teens.  There is an initial meeting this Saturday 30th November 11-1pm for those who have already been involved in the Museum’s ‘Let’s Talk About Climate’, and others are welcome to join. For more information, please contact the Museum’s Head of Learning, Sarah Lloyd.



This blog is reposted from the LCWO website.

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