From education to employment

Why sustainability means caring about learner outcomes

A few weeks ago a good friend who works in education asked me why she should care about sustainability. It is a profound question and may be the crux of getting sustainability on the agenda of some organisations and higher up the priorities of others.

Some people have told me that they care about people and not the environment. The thing is, though, that we don’t have to, or rather we don’t have the option to, choose between people and the environment because the two are inextricably linked.

Nevertheless we often experience them as being in competition with each other. But if we think that, through the way we live (and have been living for sixty odd years) we are creating conditions which in the future will cause people to struggle for sufficient and clean water, for fertile soil to grow food for an ever increasing world population, and for a climate that provides stable conditions for agriculture, then we start realising that we have to stop the either/or thinking, that it’s not a matter of one or the other but finding a way so that both good people and planet outcomes can be achieved. This requires new levels of creativity – understanding that things are closely and complexly connected and an ability to think ahead in much longer timescales than we are used to.

So in fact if we like people, we need to care about sustainability, and if we really care about the outcomes for learners we need to put sustainability high up on our agendas in any type of educational institution, whether primary, secondary, FE, WBL, adult education or university. Let’s take a 17 year-old young man called Steven who is going into FE now. With an average life expectancy of 80 years in the UK, he might be lucky enough to experience the year 2076. That is 63 years from now. Yes, we want Steven to leave with a qualification, the best grades he can get, we want him to be employable when he leaves college, but is that really all we want for him?

Is that really setting up Steven well for when he is in his mid-forties in 2041 or retires, if the concept still exists then, in 2063? Let’s take a look at a few trends that may guide our thinking. Energy prices according to have increased by 30% in the last five years, and in a recent Daily Telegraph interview Waitrose’s boss talked about a 5% increase in prices for vegetables and bread during 2013 back in January, connecting it to weather conditions in 2012 which had destroyed crops.

These are not one-off events but they are beginning to be patterns which indicate that the future will hold very different prospects for people and young people in particular. The 5th assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPPC), published at the end of September 2013, warns very clearly of stark overall temperature rises and changing weather patterns in the following decades if we don’t curb CO2 emissions.

This will mean there will be even more effects on food prices, availability of water, energy prices, etc. How well are we equipping Steven for this? Are we preparing him to see these connections, to see the trade-offs we are making by certain decisions we are taking now and what it is likely to mean for him and his children in the future? So just as we don’t need to start a chicken or egg debate about if people are more important than the environment, or if the present is more important than the future, we don’t need to worry if qualifications and a job are more important than preparing young people to be resilient and help co-create a future in which they can continue to flourish because the answer is both. How can we make sure Steven and his peers Rebecca, Anoosh and Ryan can have both?

My colleague Kirsti Norris and I recently wrote a research report on ‘Embedding Sustainability into Teaching, Learning and the Curriculum’ which had been commissioned by LSIS and was published just before its closure at the end of July 2013. In it we give lots of ideas about what colleges and other post-16 providers need to consider in terms of exposing people to key sustainability competences, sustainability themes and pedagogies which are necessary for young people to not only cope with what will emerge but also equip them to create a future in which people, the environment and the economy are not in competition with each other but work in synergy to create wellbeing for all.

Through a creative mix of using pedagogies which are not only good for developing sustainability competences but also improving learner achievement, connecting key sustainability competences and themes to existing curricular content, making use of non-qualification hours, effective strategies for learner engagement as well as transparent and democratic leadership strategies, colleges can become sustainability leaders. In this way we give Steven and his friends the chance to be equipped for their future rather than a past that no longer exists. This is also the content of some forthcoming workshops in London and Plymouth in December 2013 and January 2014, where this thinking will be taken further, well beyond the research report.

Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd, an independent company working with organisations and communities to bring about transformational change through dialogue, collaboration and innovation, and is particularly active in the sustainability field. Her work is inspired by systems thinking, the U-process developed at MIT as well as some of the emerging social technologies such as Future Search, Open Space, Change Labs and World Cafe. You can follow Andrea on Twitter, and Facebook, or find out more about her and the LSIS research report and workshops by visiting

(Photograph credit: Seamus Ryan)


Related Articles

Promises, Possibilities & Political Futures…

Tristan Arnison discusses the main UK parties’ education policies for the upcoming election. While specifics vary, common themes emerge around curriculum reform, skills training, and…