Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: August 2012

Play England sponsors dirt and grazed knees

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I have come across Play England rather late in life.  Its purpose is to ensure that children and young people in England have the space and opportunity to play freely as part of their daily lives, at school and other services, at home, and throughout the public realm.  This sounds a good idea and its what parents, schools and communities used to do.  This is PE's own history

Play England, part of the children's charity NCB, was established by the former Children's Play Council (CPC) in 2006 as a result of a Big Lottery Fund (BIG) grant of more than £15million for the Play England Project, as an integral part of BIG's Children's Play initiative.  In November 2007, Play England and CPC agreed to consolidate its activities under the Play England identity to avoid any confusion about the relationship between both organisations.  At the same time a new Strategic Advisory Board was established to drive forward our work chaired by Sandra Melville, a former CPC chair.  The former CPC membership was revitalised to ensure we fully represent the play sector in England; the resulting Play England Council has over 250 members who meet throughout the year to contribute to our strategic plans.  The success of the Children's Play initiative, together with our effective research, policy and campaigning activities, contributed the decision of the last government to adopt a national Play Strategy. This saw our capacity almost double in 2008-09 when we were appointed as a government national delivery partner under two new contracts totalling more than £7m.  In summer 2010 Play England announced a reorganisation as result of changes to our contracts with the Department for Education. The new structure and programme of work, which sees our nine regional offices replaced with a flexible targeted development and delivery team to ensure that we are best able to represent and support the play sector and respond to the changing political and economic context.

On a more practical level, I am pleased to note that its work is sponsored by both Persil and Savlon.  How marvellous!


Write out a hundred times: "I must remember to include pupils and community ..."

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

The latest edition of the SEEd E-Newsletter contains this statement from an experienced ESD primary school teacher in relation to what she took away from SEEd's 2012 sustainable schools conference ...

“To go back and remember to include pupils and community at all levels.”

All very good and necessary, of course – except that, if you really are an experienced ESD practitioner, should you not be bringing this determination to the conference?  Indeed, should you not get up every day knowing this is important?  Odd, I thought, to have this identified as something to celebrate.


Education on the path to sustainability – how shall we know?

📥  Comment, New Publications, Talks and Presentations

Here is a link to recent work carried out in Austria, Germany and Switzerland on indicators to evaluate ESD.

The publication: Education on the Path to Sustainability – proposed indicator set to evaluate education for sustainable development results from the international research project “Development of Indicators to Evaluate Offerings and Performance in the Area of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)” (2008-2011).

The group summarises the publication in this way:

A majority of actors in politics and science stated that the idea of sustainability should be established in national education systems around the world.  Practitioners, politicians and scientists all unanimously agree that simply taking action is not enough – it is also necessary to evaluate how successful efforts at reaching this goal have been.

This book presents the theoretical foundations, methods and chosen results of this interdisciplinary project.  The goal of the project was to present indicators that would allow to answer the question of whether and to what extent the idea of sustainability has been integrated in the education system for all levels of formal education, and not only at a national level in the participating countries, but also in international comparison.  The work resulted in a set of ten ESD indicators, which due to a process of negotiation among actors from science, politics and practice has a broad foundation.  The book provides a transnational description of the indicators and a description format to be used in their concretization for a given country.  It thus provides a basis for the further implementation of indicators for education for sustainable development. The book is an extract of the project‘s results provided for the international expert conference in the aftermath of the project where the indicators were put up for discussion in a broader context. In the full version, available only in German, the indicators are concretized for the three countries participating in the project.

The book will be launched, and ideas explored, at a conference in early September at which I am talking about "the potential benefits and risks of ESD indicators" in a keynote.  I shall report back ...


Greening the military, sustainable warfare, and other paradoxes

📥  Comment, News and Updates, Talks and Presentations

The BBC had a programme the other week, 'Greening the Military', which looked at how British (and other) armed forces are increasingly having to take account of the environmental impact of their activities.  This is part of the BBC's blurb for the programme:

... given the fact that war zones are highly hazardous locations, subject to extreme and enduring destruction, the thought of Britain's armed forces caring for the natural world can strike many as an extraordinary paradox. Nonetheless their activities are increasingly answerable to European environmental legislation, and battalions in the field are having to think carefully about their carbon footprints and carbon-dependency.

We hear how each new weapon system receives an environmental audit before it is deployed, and because of noise abatement measures, Eurofighter planes have to do full combat training exercises over the North Sea rather than over mainland Europe.

Angus Crawford asks whether the armed forces can do their job whilst also respecting the environment. Speaking to serving infantry officers fresh back from Helmand Province, he also visits a Swedish arms factory that prides itself on making environmentally-friendly lead-free bullets that don't pollute the water table. We also hear about so-called green fuel initiatives being deployed by British and American armed forces in order to reduce their reliance on diesel. This, we hear, is in response to the high human and financial cost of delivering fuel to remote theatres of war, such as Helmand. And, as one of Britain's largest landowners, we hear how the MoD's firing ranges have become a refuge for many rare species of wildlife that are no longer found in rural areas that are farmed in the conventional way.

For many, I know, this is all a paradox too far, because they see sustainability through a collaborative, war-free lens; i.e., there will be no sustainability until we have world peace, harmony, the brotherhood of (hu)man, etc.  Whilst there is probably something in this, it is certainly possible to envisage human pressures on the biosphere and other environmental tensions being eased whilst at the same time there are still differences between (and within) countries that come to be resolved by fighting.  Indeed, might it be that, in some places, fighting is necessary in order to ease sustainability?  If human rights are an aspect of a sustainable society, then that seems plausible.  In the meantime, it seems rather inevitable that we shall have more water (and other resource) wars as the pressures intensify on us.

I live on the edge of Salisbury Plain where some of the ecological effects of the military can be quite positive: better the army than countless more acres of barley, many feel.  Wildlife seem to thrive, despite shelling, trenching, yomping, and the like.  It was the same in the Baltic States with the Red Army, I am told.


Mr Gove fails to make new friends

📥  Comment, News and Updates

It is reported that the Secretary of State for Education (for England), Michael Gove, is exempting further categories of taxpayer-funded schools from having to employ teachers with formal qualified teacher status (QTS).  The  Guardian reports the DfE as saying:

"Independent schools and free schools can already hire brilliant people who have not got QTS.  We are extending this flexibility to all academies so more schools can hire great linguists, computer scientists, engineers and other specialists who have not worked in state schools before. We expect the vast majority of teachers will continue to have QTS.  This additional flexibility will help schools improve faster.  No existing teacher contract is affected by this minor change."

If it is really the case that "additional flexibility will help schools improve faster", then the wonder is that it hasn't been extended to all schools.

First reactions were as predictable as they were hostile.  The Guardian again ...

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the decision was a "clear dereliction of duty" and a cost-cutting measure dressed up as flexibility.   A poll conducted by the union in anticipation of such a policy change last year found that 89% of parents want their child to have a qualified teacher, with just 1% "comfortable about those without the teaching qualification taking charge of a class", said Blower.

But hang on, virtually all the professional knowledge and skills that a teacher builds up is developed through working with other skilled and experienced colleagues over time – just what will happen with this change.  Even those smart enough to survive the Teaching Agency (TA Note 1) grinding mill and emerge into schools are still pretty raw when they first start.  So, what a relief that schools are full of inspiring teacher-mentors – many of them Christine Blower's members.

The BBC reports that the headmaster of Brighton College (an independent school) has, unsurprisingly perhaps, supported the changes.  In a statement released through the DfE, Richard Cairns said:

"I strongly believe that teachers are born not made and I will actively seek out teachers from all walks of life who have the potential to inspire children.  At Brighton College, we have 39 teachers without formal teaching qualifications, including me.  Some come straight from top universities, others from careers including law, finance and science.  Once teachers are in the school, they have a reduced teaching timetable to allow them to spend time observing other good teachers and are actively mentored.  By the end of the year, they are, in our view, better trained than any PGCE student."

A claim too far, perhaps, and a fairer comparative question would be how do they fare at the end of year two.  I note, just in passing, that the DfE seems to be endorsing this dismal view of the PGCE; only obeying orders, I guess.

Note 1 The Teaching Agency (which changes its name more often than the average nuclear reprocessing plant) still seems to take its copy book headings from Dickens' Hard Times.



📥  Comment, News and Updates

I see that the government of Georgia is organizing an inter-governmental conference on Environmental Education for Sustainable Development.  This is scheduled for 6 – 7 September 2012 in, where else, Tbilisi, and will commemorate the 35th anniversary of the eponymous declaration.  The conference aims to ...

"provide a platform for international leaders to follow up on UN-led forums on ESD and take stock of the gains made in implementation of major national, regional and international Environmental Education agendas up to 2012, and to define the roadmap ahead."

That won't take long, then.  It also aims to ...

"leverage on the educational agenda that will be captured in the outcome document of the recently-concluded RIO+20 summit."

... whatever that means.  Clearly, this is an event for gab-fest junkies with carbon credits (probably other people's) to spare.  I'll not be going.


Defra has another go at indicators

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Defra is reviewing the UK's sustainable development indicator set, and is seeking views on its proposals.  It says this ...

The Government has committed to measure and report our progress through a new set of sustainable development indicators.  The intention is that these will provide a high level transparent overview as to whether the UK is developing on a sustainable path [and] support our evidence base for policy development across Government.

Just so – except that such confidence is misplaced.  Looking at the existing sustainable development indicators shows the difficulties.  This is the current one for education …

The proportion of 19 year-olds with Level 2 qualifications and above

This has the considerable merit of being easy to measure, but what does it really tell you?  Only, perhaps, the proportion of 19 year-olds with Level 2 qualifications and above, where the link to sustainable development is tenuous at best, and it’s an act of some faith that this provides any measure that we’re developing on a sustainable pathway.  As Donella Meadows noted:

We try to measure what we value. We come to value what we measure.

So, maybe a better indicator would be the proportion of PhD theses that address sustainable development – except we can recall David Orr telling us that the problems were caused by people with PhDs.  Well, not quite, of course.  Orr is given to simplification.

We are supposed to have a second education indicator in the current set.  This one was to focus on ESD and has been "under development" for about 10 years, and still is.  Is this blank just because we weren’t any good at thinking about it?  Or because it’s impossible to create anything meaningful?  I lean to the latter view.  The UK’s new proposals sidestep all these problems quite brilliantly.  There is no mention of ESD, and even education just gets a passing nod.

Defra is proposing 12 headline, and 25 supplementary indicators.  It says that the 12 provisional headline indicators are high-level outcome measures, and capture priority issues for making economic, environmental and social progress in line with the UK sustainable development strategy’s ‘guiding principles’ of sustainable development:

living within the planet’s environmental limits;    ensuring a strong, healthy and just society;    achieving a sustainable economy;

promoting good governance;   using sound science responsibly.

The headline indicators are:

Economy Society Environment
  • Economic prosperity
  • Healthy life expectancy
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Long term unemployment
  • Social Capital
  • Natural resource use
  • Poverty
  • Social mobility in adulthood
  • Wildlife & biodiversity
  • Knowledge & skills
  • Housing provision
  • Water availability

Those of you who think these things matter will have noticed that, in doing this, sustainable development has been split up into what many see as its component parts.  Sadly, in this Defra view, it never gets put back together.

The only reference to education is within the Economy headline indicator of knowledge & skills.  This is:

The value of knowledge and skills (as a proxy for human capital) per person of working age.

... where, human capital is defined as “the knowledge, skills, competencies and attributes embodied in individuals that facilitate the creation of personal, social and economic well-being” (OECD, 2001).  Rather ironically, OECD omits any reference to the environmental well-being which is at the heart of the issue here.  The UK measure uses a discounted lifetime labour income approach which is based on gender, age and the level of qualification acquired during participation in compulsory and post-compulsory, vocational or general education, tertiary education, etc.  None of this is straightforward, and there is no mention of ESD.

And you can see the problem immediately – it’s really just the same as the old level 2 qualifications indicator, though it is somewhat more sophisticated (I think I really mean complex).  This, especially taken with the limited view of human capital, means that a lifetime of education and training will count whether or not there is any focus on sustainable development which means that ESD counts for nothing.

As I hinted at the outset, there is a bigger problem.  It has been suggested that such headline indicators represent a sort of barometer or compass bearing.  For example, if all the indicators can be lined up so that they are all pointing in the right direction, then we can assume that we are making progress along the sustainable development pathway.  It’s a pleasing, and reassuring, metaphor.  However, there is a major problem with the whole approach.  ESRC-funded research that Bath and Lancaster were involved in, in 2004, noted this:

It is true if the headline indicators are broadly negative, we can tell that the overall position is not sustainable.  Unfortunately, this does not mean that when they are all positive, the position necessarily is sustainable.  Indeed, it is even possible that positive indicator results will operate perversely to move us off a sustainable pathway.

In other words, if you fail to meet an indicator, then you know there’s work to do; if you do meet it, there’s always uncertainty about whether the indicator was appropriate.  For example, if we were to succeed in keeping the global temperature rise below, say, 3o C, we’d still have to wait for years to see whether that was enough.  As the old cliché has it: only time will tell.  Does Defra know this?


Olympics, the curriculum and sustainability

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I have been following the Olympics rather more than I thought I should – mostly mediated by the BBC, but including a trip to see volleyball for real (accompanying rather bemused grandchildren).  I've been enjoying the drama without getting too carried away (I hope) with medal league tables, though they are hard to avoid (mediated by the BBC).  I note that, amid the euphoria, it has also been a great opportunity for miserabilists everywhere, to demonstrate again the depth of their misanthropy, so I presume that even they must be enjoying it all.

I have not appreciated the BBC's obsession with "feelings": win or lose, the default question to the hapless athlete from the hopeless commentator always seems to start: "How does it feel to jump / run / dive / swim / stumble / fall off / drop it ... like that?  No one, it seems, is capable of asking questions about tactics or skill.  Lamentable.

As for the curriculum, and the questions around compulsory PE (or was that PT?), well, I suppose one day we might untangle issues around health / fitness / exercise / diet, on the one hand, and competitive sport / games, on the other – but not yet it seems.  However, I'd certainly say we need compulsory vocabulary classes so that young (and not so young) people can say things other than amazing or unbelievable.  And as for the Olympics and sustainability (or is that legacy?), this is not a word I have heard since the BBC's Twenty Twelve went off the air, though someone is claiming that these are the greenest games ever: details here.


Teaching and learning strategies – and ESD

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

This is part of a message sent by UCU about the publication of the 2012 Green League Table ...

"We are particularly concerned about the slow pace of change on education for sustainable development.  Only a third of institutions have integrated it into their teaching and learning strategies.  This compares to polls that show 70% of students want greener degrees [1].  Unless urgent action is taken to address this we will not have the skills base to move to a low carbon economy in the UK."

... which begs (at least) three questions:

  • does the crude methodology of the green league tell us anything worthwhile about what's being taught / learned?
  • what has ESD to do with the economy – low carbon or other?    (or with greener degrees?)
  • do teaching and learning strategies determine what gets learned by students?
  • ...

The assumption in the UCU statement is that the UK's low-carbon skills base depends on whether ESD features in an institution's teaching and learning strategy.  If this were all that's necessary, I'd have taken up golf ages ago.  However, it isn't; rather, it depends on what students learn when exposed by expert academics to the inter-play of knowledge, theory, cutting edge research, and post-normal workplace practices, in relation to their chosen and other necessary disciplines.  Happily, UK universities have rather a lot of academics who can lay on such carefully-constructed experiences.

A very pertinent question is what does ESD contribute to all this?  Rather than think that it's only ESD that matters, it would be better to articulate carefully just what contribution it can make, and what value it can add.


[1] What the NUS research report said was:

"Over two thirds of 2011 first and second-year respondents (66.6% and 70.3% respectively), as in 2010 (70%), believe that sustainability should be covered by their university".

This was a summary of answers to questions of the form: Is sustainable development something which universities should actively incorporate and promote?


Unapproved strawberry jam alert

📥  News and Updates

In a press release dated 30th July 2012, the Office for Strictures and Control on Food and Fodder ( Ofscoff ) [1] ordered the confiscation of strawberry jam recently and illicitly produced by unqualified persons at an unregistered site somewhere in the Bath area.  A spokesperson for Ofscoff, Dr Isabella McTarry-Wilson, said

"This jam must be tracked down, rounded up, and eliminated.  It breaches all norms and expectations in relation to jam (strawberry-type [red]) [2] in that:

[a]  the number of strawberries used per pot exceeds the Ofscoff norm

[b]  it contains the wrong sort of berries for this sort of normalised jam-type food; they are much too large

[c]  the berries have failed to disintegrate in the proper way during the cooking, and can still be recognised as berries in the jar

[d]  when opened and applied to bread, the jam fails to run off in the designated internationally-approved fashion, or drip onto tables and trousers according to regulation

[e]  the jam actually tastes of strawberries".

Dr McTarry-Wilson conceded that the last point was not strictly a contravention of norm, expectation (or regulation), but she added

"Clearly whilst some taste is regretably permissable, this jam does not conform to the spirit of strawberry jam making today in that Ofscoff's standard residual taste per berry quotient has been grossly exceeded".

What made matters worse, McTarry-Wilson said, was that people actually seemed to enjoy it, adding:

"It is in no one's interests to have food available that people like.  Suppose everyone wanted that kind of food?  Where would we be then?  Ofscoff is on high alert, and these irresponsible people should not think that they will get away with it.  We have inspectors combing the region as we speak.  We are watching markets and corner shops; they need not think that they can escape".

ENDS .................

Editor's note

[1] Ofscoff’s remit is to establish minimum food standards for animals and people, and make sure that these are not exceeded.

[2] It must be assumed that unapproved strawberries were used, and/or a process employed not licensed under the last government's 2004 Taste Laws which were rushed through Parliament after socially-deprived children had been discovered actually enjoying food.