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Climate change and sustainability in secondary schools report

Rachel Bolstad

How are  secondary schools responding to climate change?

In 2020 we surveyed a sample of English-medium secondary schools to find out how climate change and sustainability feature in classroom teaching and learning, and whole-school practices.

The findings suggest that whole-school approaches and responses to climate change and sustainability—advocated for in the international literature—are not common in secondary schools. While students in most schools have learning opportunities relating to climate change and/or sustainability, the nature and focus of these opportunities vary.

Key findings include:

  • Many secondary teachers and school leaders expect climate change will have an impact on their communities within their students’ lifetimes.
  • Secondary schools are generally supportive of student environmental and climate leadership, but it is uncommon for secondary schools to have a school-wide focus on climate change.
  • Science and social science subjects were the most likely to address climate change in the classroom, but it is sometimes addressed in other learning areas including English, the arts, languages, technology, mathematics, and health and physical education.
  • Some schools offer specific sustainability classes or integrated/cross-curricular programmes.
  • Causes/impacts and personal actions are a common focus in the classroom.  Collective and systemic actions are less likely to be a major focus. 
  • Some teachers commented on constraining factors that limited the extent to which they or their students could engage in collective and systemic change-making as part of their learning.
  • The least common focus in classrooms where climate change is addressed is “students’ career options and pathways in a ‘green’ or ‘transition’ economy”. 
  • Other less common focuses included: mātauranga Māori or other indigenous knowledges as sources for positive climate and sustainability action; the specific impacts of climate change for Pacific peoples; local or regional adaptation or mitigation activities; and critical or media literacy, including how to evaluate science evidence or media reporting about climate change.

The survey also asked whether the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has had any impact on thinking and practice with respect to climate change. Some teachers saw the COVID-19 response as a model for personal and systemic changes that could make a positive impact on climate change and sustainability. Others said COVID-19 had eclipsed all other priorities and thinking, including any attention given to climate change. 


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Research report
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