Environmental education policy in New Zealand is not reaching schools

He Pākehā ahau

Nō Airani, nō Ingarangi, nō Kōterani, nō Bohemia, no Moravia hoki ōku tūpuna

I whānau mai ahau i Whakatāne

I tupu ake au i Rangiora

Kei Waiheke tōku kāinga ināianei

He whaea ahau

He kaiako ahau

Ko Sarah Hoult tōku ingoa

I am Pākehā. My ancestors came from Ireland, England, Scotland, Bohemia and Moravia. I was born in Whakatāne. I grew up in Rangiora. My home now is on Waiheke Island. I am a mother. I am a teacher. My name is Sarah Hoult.

Five years ago, I wrote a dissertation entitled ‘The Place of Environmental Education in New Zealand Schooling: Policy, practice and possible futures’. In those five years, I have seen little positive progress from ‘the top down’, but a growing sense of urgency and energy from the ‘flaxroots’. Recent attendence of Education International Asia Pacific’s online conference, ‘Mobilising Educators for Climate Change Education’ motivated me to re-engage with what I see as the most pressing issue in education.

The GEM Report’s new country profile for New Zealand on Climate Change Communication and Education hosted on its PEER website, provides a thorough summary of climate change in current/recent legislation and policy. The report highlights that there is no requirement for teacher training programmes to provide climate change education, and that ongoing professional development for teachers is inadequate. Some curriculum resources are available for motivated schools and teachers to use. The profile reflects the findings of Rachel Bolstad for NZCER (New Zealand Council for Educational Research): while there is some support for New Zealand schools to actively engage with climate change, the onus to take active steps sits with individual schools, teachers, or students.

New Zealand’s profile on the PEER website alerted to me to the existence of the document ‘Mātaranga Whakauka Taiao – Environmental Education for Sustainability: Mauhere Rautaki – Strategy and Action Plan, 2017-2021 (EefS Strategy)’. The profile describes it as ‘(o)ne of the most important strategies’ (p.3), and ‘the equivalent to a national education sustainability strategy for formal education’ (p.4). It is telling that the profile states ‘(t)he Strategy indicates the intention to establish an on-going cross-sectoral governance group’ but that, ‘(a)t the time of data collection, this review was not able to find publicly information on the initiative’s status’ (p.3). Bolstad (p.32) notes that this EEfS Strategy ‘is not visible on, or linked to from, the Ministry of Education website’. It is an understatement to say this document is not prominent with educators.

The EEfS Strategy gives a brief history, explaining that in 2016, the Minister for Conservation released a proposal to refresh New Zealand’s Environmental Education strategy, and that this report is the result of that work. While the claim is made that in 1998, ‘government agencies set priorities for environmental education – and this focus remains nearly two decades later’, I would argue that the 1998 Guidelines for Environmental Education in New Zealand Schools were similarly ineffective in being adopted by teachers and schools, and embedded in practice.

Why wasn’t the EEfS Strategy effectively disseminated?

For starters, arguably it was never supported by the Ministry of Education in the first place. The Ministry publication one year earlier, ‘Education Plan 2016 -2020’ overlooked environment and climate altogether.

There was also a change of goverment in 2017, bringing changes in educational priorities. Under the current Labour-led government, we have more of a focus on student wellbeing as well as student achievement. The curriculum is currently being ‘refreshed’.  The GEM Peer profile comments that ‘it is expected that more opportunities will be explicitly provided for climate change learning’ (p.5). Perhaps the statement that ‘Mātauranga Māori . . . as foundational learning, will be explicitly woven throughout’ is what has fed this expectation. The refresh will make sure ‘it is bicultural, inclusive, clear and easy to use’– but will this include climate? A ‘refresh’ of Science is probably the best hope for communicating a sense of urgency and call to action. Let’s hope it is not a missed opportunity.

The Ministry of Education provides some resources to support teaching about sustainability and climate change, notably via Te Kete Ipurangi online (tki) and Education Gazette – Tukutuku Kōrero.

The GEM Peer profile also highlights the 2020 Ministry-published teacher resource, ‘Climate Change: Prepare Today, Live Well Tomorrow’, describing it as ‘the most concrete teacher resource published by the Ministry of Education about climate change at the time of this review’ (p.6) This is the most comprehensive resource I have seen, however, I am skeptical on how widely known and used it is, and I am concerned that it is a resource for Years 7 and above, and does not address learning for children in their formative years.

My experience suggests such resources are accessed by motivated individuals who seek them out. They are not shared in a way that is effective in reaching all schools and all teachers.

Based on my research and two decades of teaching practice, this is how I would describe the range of scenarios we see currently in New Zealand schools:

There are some pockets of ‘flourishing practice’ where school leadership and the community prioritise and support sustainability and climate education. Funding, staffing and resourcing are directed to achieving clear goals. Organisations, resources and programmes such as Enviroschools, Te Aho Tū Roa, Garden to Table, Kids Greening Taupō, hapū and iwi, local councils, Ministry for the Environment, and others make this mahi (work) possible. It happens more in spite of the Ministry of Education rather than because of it.

In other schools, kaitiakitanga (care for the environment) may be a stated value of the school. Groups of committed individuals within and around the school commit to taking on environmental projects on top of everything else. There is support from school leadership, however, funding, staffing and resourcing is limited (i.e. never enough). This implicitly results in this mahi being marginal rather than central. It is tiring to be an activist and people become burnt out.

In other schools, not much is happening. It is not required or directed by the Ministry of Education, the board of trustees or school leadership. Busy teachers already have enough on their plates.

What are some possible future scenarios?

Things could continue as they are – business as usual, variable practice, lack of coherent messaging “from the top”.

Or maybe the curriculum refresh currently underway will present a new vision and direction. Based on Ministry of Education policy and practice since 1998, I hold little hope for change of the scale needed to face up to current climate challenges.

The Ministry of Education could take its role seriously in facing up to and preparing for climate challenges ahead. We could see a radical transformation of schools as sites that model and teach sustainable, low-emission ways of living. The adults working in the education could put in place the supports and infrastructure that make a measurable difference.

The calls made in Education International’s Manifesto on Quality Climate Change for All need to be acted upon, albeit with an ingoa Māori (Māori name) for the kaupapa (agenda/concept). If climate isn’t taken seriously by the Ministry of Education in 2022, it may be too late.

As stated in the UNECSO Berlin Declaration on Education for Sustainable Development, ‘(t)ransformative learning for people and the planet is a necessity for our survival and that of future generations. The time to learn and act for our planet is now’.

*Featured image credit UN Photo/Evan Schneider

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