Charlotte Bonner, the National Head of Education for Sustainable Development at the Education and training Foundation

The landmark Environment Bill was announced this week (10 Mar), protecting the environment for the next generation and demonstrating to the world that the environment is at the front and centre of the Government’s work, ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26).

The Bill will create a duty on ministers across Whitehall to be guided by five internationally recognised environmental principles when making policy.

The end of 2020 saw the European launch of @UNESCO’s new Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) roadmap for 2030

Building on the UN decade for ESD and the subsequent Global Action Plan, the #ESDfor2030 roadmap calls for action across five areas to ensure the education sector globally can fulfil its role in achieving the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs):  

  1. National level ESD strategies
  2. Uptake of whole-institution approaches to ESD 
  3. Building the ESD capacities of educators
  4. Empowering and mobilising youth action
  5. Empowering and mobilising community action

The Further Education (FE) and training sector is uniquely placed to bring about transition and transformation in our society. The sector reaches millions of learners from all walks of life. It homes 100,000 staff and reaches communities in every town and city in the country.

FE is the pipeline for the workforce of many industries, employers and sectors that have a critical role to play in sustainable development, including construction, manufacture, agriculture, catering and motoring.  

The potential reach of FE’s ESD work is huge. For various reasons, progress in the sector to date has been fragmented and slow, with ESD not yet seen as a central pillar of the sector and its work. 

This needs to change for several reasons: 

Simply put, the FE sector isn’t yet in a position where it can fulfil its role in supporting the realisation of the SDGs, nor the post-Covid-19 or zero-carbon agendas. This must change in 2021. 

The sector needs to embed sustainability across the formal curriculum, the learning environment, and the encounters learners and staff have. This is sometimes conceptualised with a model of four Cs: campus, curriculum, community and culture.  

We need sustainable development within the formal curriculum of every learner across every discipline. This is needed both in specialisms such as zero carbon construction as well as less obvious subject areas such as digital, which still have a critical role to play in our understanding and progress towards sustainability. In addition, ESD elements should be available in the informal and subliminal curriculum of providers too. 

The environment and sustainability sector has been identified as the second least diverse among over 200 professions in the UK. Environmental sustainability and social justice are intrinsically linked so it’s important that an intersectional approach is taken. This will support the issues covered by the UN sustainable development goals to be tackled holistically with solutions producing co-benefits rather than trade-offs between issues.  

A statement of vision for sustainable development and ESD in FE could include: 

  • FE teachers, leaders, trainers and professional staff are using education to meet society’s sustainable development needs  
  • All learners are explicitly sustainability learners 
  • FE develops specialist sustainability skills which enable the green transition
  • The workforce across the sector is well equipped to embed ESD in their subject areas 
  • ESD is inclusive, for everyone
  • Net-zero or regenerative infrastructure is used as part of the learning journey as well as to ‘house’ education  
  • FE institutions having positive impacts in their communities to enhance sustainable development. 

To achieve this vision, sustainability needs to be a part of everyday life for FE providers. To create this change it will require policy change, funding, innovation, communities, upskilling, partnerships – a sector wide shift. It will take a mix of top down, bottom up and middle out approaches to truly embed ESD across the sector.  The below outlines an initial analysis of what some of the levers for change could be.

1) Top down, centralised change:

  • ESD’s inclusion in the Professional Standards
  • ESD’s inclusion in initial teacher training 
  • ESD’s inclusion in regulatory and inspection frameworks
  • ESD’s inclusion in apprenticeship occupational standards and awarding organisation curricula
  • New national ESD kitemarks
  • New central funding for ESD
  • Clear ESD promotion in central education strategy and policy 

2) Middle out, organisational change: 

  • Whole-institutionapproaches to ESD across campus, curriculum, community and culture 
  • ESD included in learner outcomes
  • New regional funding for ESD
  • Scale up and replication support for proven innovations and approaches
  • Professional networks embracing ESD
  • High quality, well supported CPD for staff 

3) Bottom up, individual change: 

  • Staff and learners adopting sustainable behaviours
  • Staff and learner ESD champions and ambassadors

When faced with the need for such transformation change, it’s easy to withdraw from the issue and put your head in the sand. But there’s much hope, inspiration and motivation to be drawn from international leaders in ESD such as Germany, Italy, Sweden and Japan. Change is possible and there’s a groundswell of activity and support available for the sector here in the UK too.  

 In 2020, the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education published another roadmap, this one designed to support and mobilise FE colleges to take climate action across their portfolio spanning leadership and governance; learning, teaching, and research; estates and operations; and partnerships and engagement. This is very much in line with the whole-institution approach advocated by the UNESCO roadmap.  

There are innovative partnerships between the sector and industry being established to secure the skills needed for decarbonisation such as the Newcastle College Energy Academy and Basingstoke College of Technology’s electric vehicle training centre.  

Our learners are developing their leadership and enterprise skills. They are doing this whilst also developing the knowledge, skills, values, behaviours and agency needed to support a sustainable future through projects such as My World My Home and Student Eats Food Enterprises.   

What’s needed to take this work to the next level is a joined-up approach to ESD as advocated by  UNESCO’s new education for sustainable development (ESD) roadmap for 2030. This will ensure ESD is a golden thread woven across the education system from early years through to adult learning with everything in between.  

As the spotlight for climate action will be on UK over the next year whilst we host COP26, we have a real opportunity to move our action from slow and fragmented to ambitious and transformational. ESD needs to be truly embedded across our education system – not as ‘another thing to teach’ or a ‘fluffy nice to have’ but as something that’s a central pillar, repurposing our work to explicitly tackle sustainability and social inequality. 

Charlotte Bonner, the National Head of Education for Sustainable Development at the Education and training Foundation

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