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Insight 14/03/2023

Climate change and education: insights from Turkana, Kenya

In this article, we reflect on the first in series of reports on the effects of the changing climate on schools and learners. Its focus, Turkana, a rural arid-and-semi-arid (ASAL) area of Kenya, serves as an example of a region characterised by economic marginalisation and vulnerability to climate disasters. From the insights gained in Turkana, we can draw wider lessons about the potential impacts of climate change on vulnerable learners, how these impacts can be mitigated, and how these learners – and their schools – can act as agents of change and information in their communities.

The impact of climate change on learners

The impacts of climate change on education are varied, wide-ranging and complex. Many impacts, caused by extreme weather events, are direct: school buildings can be damaged, routes to school can become unsafe or impassible for teachers and learners, and illnesses (for example, from flood water) can prevent students’ attendance. Others are less direct, but no less profound. In periods of prolonged drought, for example, parents lose livelihoods and food supplies dwindle, making schooling a luxury many cannot afford. This may result in boys dropping out of school to find pasture for livestock, and girls being required to take on additional domestic duties while their mothers travel longer distances to collect water. For those who are able to attend, hunger – especially where school feeding programmes are interrupted – can remain a barrier to concentration and effective learning. What is more, in such contexts, competition for resources can lead to conflict, closing schools completely.

Schools, communities and climate education

In order to minimise the impacts of climate change on learners – and on their wider communities – communities need to understand the real causes of climate change and be equipped with the relevant knowledge and skills to adapt at a local level, and to take mitigating actions where possible.

As schools are among the institutions that communities trust, they can play a vital role in climate education by teaching learners how to be agents of change within their communities, building knowledge and skills that they can transfer into their homes and neighbourhoods. As schools are potential hubs for exchanging information and mobilising change in communities, the question of climate change curriculum is a critical one in community responses to climate change.

The climate change curriculum should provide both a rounded picture of the causes of climate change and locally relevant information. However, there is too often a gap between local understandings of changing weather patterns and the real origins of global climate change. Despite their lived experiences of worsening weather conditions, most students and community members interviewed in Turkana were unable to accurately identify the causes of these changes, attributing them solely to local practices (such as cutting down trees or burning charcoal) or local stories and beliefs.  This gap indicates that the current curriculum does not develop learners’ knowledge of the causes of climate change or connect these origins with their local context – making it a critical locus for reform.

Building resilience for education continuity

In order to act as change agents in their communities – and to continue to enable learning – schools need to build resilience to the effects of climate change. This may include investing in school infrastructure that is more resilient to extreme weather (such as high winds and occasional flooding) or setting up contingency funds for quick repairs in the event of damage. In areas where journeys to school can be hazardous (for example, due to extreme heat or flooding), it may even mean providing low-cost boarding facilities for teachers and learners. Such facilities can also potentially protect learners from illness caused by flood waters by reducing their exposure, or from being diverted away from education into domestic and income-generating work. Indeed, the provision of boarding facilities was one of the most recommended actions by the communities, learners and school staff interviewed for our report in Turkana. Although such adaptations will be resource-intensive and will require rigorous safeguarding procedures, they may potentially have a great return on investment, with worsening weather conditions increasing the risk of learners missing out on school for longer periods of time in future.  

School feeding programmes may also serve as a focal point for ensuring continued learning. A lack of food during drought season is one of the most pervasive reasons for learners missing school (or, where girls are encouraged to marry early in the face of economic hardship, for dropping out entirely). It also affects learners’ ability to concentrate if they are able to attend. Though there will be many complex social and contextual factors at play, the provision of school feeding programmes which are not reliant on local food sources has the potential to remove a key barrier – caused or exacerbated by climate change – to learning.  

Of course, there may be times, even with such provisions in place – and certainly without them – where schools are forced to close (for example, due to conflict). Resilience here may include preparedness for remote learning, to enable learners to continue their education from home. This is particularly challenging in resource-limited environments and will require investment and strategic planning, but there are viable possibilities to enable continuity of learning. For example, tech-enabled options would simply not be feasible for many learners, but no-tech options (such as paper-based materials) could be distributed in advance of anticipated school closures after early weather warnings.

The challenges presented by the changing climate are substantial, and these early insights from our research clearly indicate the necessity of investment in resilience-building and climate education. It is vital that the connections between education and climate are given careful consideration as the climate crisis continues to unfold. For this reason, we will be further exploring this critical issue in additional research in the coming months. To find out more, please contact our research and consultancy team.

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