Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: March 2013

Free the QAA 5,000

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I sat through a briefing by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) yesterday on its proposed new resource on ESD.  Quite why it is doing this, is still beyond me, as I have already noted.  I didn't take part in the discussion as I don't think the QAA should exist and firmly believe that Universities, and the country, would be better off without it.  Indeed, I view the QAA in the same way that Thomas Cromwell viewed the 16th century monasteries.  This attitude is bolstered by the argument of the economic historian, Henry Hobhouse, who says that the dissolution of the monasteries released significant intellectual capability back into secular institutions and the community, which had a hugely beneficial impact.  How true would this be if QAA were to be dissolved; universities and society more generally would be the better for it, and the public purse relieved of a needless burden – a classic win-win-win.

Go on;  let's do it!


ESD ≠ SD, unless ...

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It ought to be obvious, even to those not privy to its arcane mysteries, that the concept of sustainable development and the process that is education for sustainable development cannot be the same thing.   But it isn't, it seems, even to those who are experts in these matters.  This is something of a puzzle.

The following are examples of this ability to confuse, conflate or exchange these terms:

1. In 1999, the UK government panel on sustainable development education set out a range of key concepts of sustainable development, but by 2003, these were being confidently discussed (and accepted) as key concepts of sustainable development education.  The (happily now long gone) QCA seemed to be the culprit.  It took a while for anyone to notice, including me.

2. In the 2003 book that Stephen Gough and I wrote (Sustainable Development and Learning: framing the issues), there were only five references to “sustainable development education”, four of which were quotes from the literature.  We were surprised, therefore to come across a paper which quoted from the book writing “sustainable development education” when all we had written was “sustainable development”.  Although these bastard quotes still made sense, our original meaning was traduced.   Knowing the perp, a scoundrel who has form in these matters, I have assumed up to this point that this was done on purpose.

3. In a 2012 UK Quality Assurance Agency [QAA] discussion paper, “education for sustainability” was identified as one of 6 "themes that cross subject boundaries"  and which "have a broad relevance to the purposes of higher education and its wider context in society."  This is nonsense, of course, as it is sustainability / sustainable development which has this "broad  relevance".  EfS is just one of many responses.  To me, this is a confusion of ends and means.  I would not expect QAA to be too alert to this, given that EfS / ESD / etc is not its main focus, but its academic advisers might have been.

4. In a similar fashion the Higher Education Academy [HEA] Strategic Plan (2012 – 2016) has identified education for sustainable development [ESD] as one of eight contemporary challenges that it sees as a priority focus. Flexible delivery, and equality and diversity are others.  But (as in #3) it is living sustainably (sustainable development, if you like) that is the challenge, not ESD, which is just one means to this end.  More confusion, as I have noted elsewhere.

5. The HEA has a JISC email network for its ESD Advisory Group.  The title of this is the Sustainability Development Advisory Group.  Careless drafting?  Confusion?  Or ...

What to make of this?  Such confusion ought to be difficult to do this, if you’re intellectually honest, or are thinking about what you’re writing / reading – or so I thought.

Well, it is easy to be judgmental about all this (as I may already have shown), but there may be something subtle (and quite common) happening here, where the familiar is so familiar that it is not read (or written) carefully.  The next example lends some credence to this, more generous, view and comes from something I have had personal involvement in.

6. In a draft text for a Brief written for UK National Commission for UNESCO about ESD in the UK, the phrase 'Decade for Sustainable Development' was used instead of the full version. This was drafted by an expert and read by three others (and me) before it went off to UNESCO at the end of 2012.  We all missed it.  I saw it at my Nth reading, when it shouted at me from the page and I could hardly believe my eyes.

So, ... .

A Right Royal Charter

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I don't know!  You leave the country for a few days to bask in UNESCO's world heritage beneficence, and when you return you find Parliament proposing to overthrow hundreds of years of hard-won press freedoms.  Not only that, but blogs are to be regulated as well as the organs of the Lord Coppers of this world.  Section 4.1.b.ii of the draft Royal Charter says that relevant publishers include:

"a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)".

Even Mum'snet is worried!  One measure of whether a press is free is whether politicians are wary of it – and of blogs (not mine, of course).  In totalitarian countries all this works the other way round.  We seem to have travelled a long way in a short time, and not in a good direction.


Still muddling, not yet through

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This is the title of a 1979 paper by Yale's CE Lindblom in Public Administration Review.  An abridged version is here, c/o Google.  It is an argument for disjointed instrumentalism as the preferred policy option.  I thought it a great read when I first came across it in the 1990s – and the title is fabulous.  Please enjoy whilst I am away.


"They do it differently, they do it better, and ...

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... they did it yesterday" is an observation that is sometimes remarked of the Scots – quite often, it has to be said, by the Scots.  However, when it comes to ESD – or Learning for Sustainability – as they prefer to term it, this could not be more true when compared to other parts of the UK, and, I suspect much farther afield.

A while back, the Scottish Government established a One Planet Schools working group, chaired by Professor Peter Higgins (Edinburgh), to provide strategic advice and direction to support the implementation of a manifesto commitment which stated that:

"We welcome proposals for the creation of One Planet schools, and will look at ways of developing this concept.  This will include action to continue the development of professional standards around sustainability education and leadership within our schools on environmental issues”.

The report of the Group, Learning for Sustainability, was published in December 2012.  In this, Learning for Sustainability was defined as:

"A whole school approach that enables the school and its wider community to build the values, attitudes, knowledge, skills and confidence needed to develop practices and take decisions which are compatible with a sustainable and equitable society".

The report contained 31 recommendations, including these 5 overarching ones:

  1. All learners should have an entitlement to learning for sustainability
  2. In line with the new GTCS Professional Standards, every practitioner, school and education leader should demonstrate learning for sustainability in their practice
  3. Every school should have a whole school approach to learning for sustainability that is robust, demonstrable, evaluated and supported by leadership at all levels
  4. School buildings, grounds and policies should support learning for sustainability
  5. A strategic national approach to supporting learning for sustainability should be established

Yesterday, the Scottish Government formally welcomed the report at a conference at Murrayfield.  Its response is here.  Here's what Dr Alasdair Allan, Scotland's Minister for Learning, Sciences and Scotland’s Languages, had to say ...

Scotland has a distinguished history and international reputation recognised by UNESCO and others for sustainable development education, global citizenship and outdoor learning, which are firmly embedded within Curriculum for Excellence.  Learning for sustainability encompasses all of these themes and approaches and sets out recommendations to build on successful practice in Scotland.  The approach being recommended complements the General Teaching Council Scotland's new Professional Standards which affirm the importance of values and learning for sustainability.

I am very appreciative of the careful consideration and hard work of the members of the One Planet Schools Working Group, chaired by Professor Pete Higgins, in preparing the Learning for Sustainability report and would also like to acknowledge all those who have informed the Scottish Government’s consideration of the response to the report.   As we approach the end of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and celebrate the Year of Natural Scotland, it is timely that we take a  strategic approach to build on successful practice and help ensure that great learning for sustainability which helps young people develop as responsible global citizens is the experience of all.

Learning for Sustainability provides a strategic agenda which needs leadership at all levels to remove barriers and enable a coherent whole school approach that encompasses the curriculum, campus, culture and community of the school.  As the report makes clear, it does not ask anything of educators that is not already implied by Curriculum for Excellence, the new GTCS Professional Standards and Teaching Scotland’s Future which set the direction for professional learning.

I am pleased to welcome the report and, on behalf of the Scottish Government, accept all the recommendations, almost all in full.  A Learning for Sustainability Implementation Group will be established in collaboration with the new Regional Centre for Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development and a range of partners to drive forward the recommendations on behalf of the Scottish Government.

Happily for the Scots, but less so for those of us beyond the English Marches, this brings into sharp relief the difference between Scotland and England.  Scottish schools are being given leadership, a positive steer, and a coherent framing of the issues to work within, but left free to determine how this should play out in their own circumstances.  English schools, by contrast, have to make do with the last of these.  It's an austerity of sorts ...


Letter to Sir Alan Langlands

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Sir Allen Langlands is the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.  This is the text of a recent letter about HE, learning, and sustainability.  It speaks for itself, as does the list of those signing.

Dear Sir Alan

We write to you following the publication of the latest grant letter dated the 11th January, from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, in which the government, as they have done in all consecutive letters since 2008, stressed the importance of sustainable development to the country, and emphasized higher education’s substantial role in contributing to its implementation.  We write as active higher education participants in the objective of furthering sustainable development in the sector.

We are pleased to note that the grant letter for 2013 has a very different emphasis from all of the preceding letters:

We thank the Council for its activity which has contributed to the HE sector’s good progress in sustainable development.We look forward to the development of a new sustainable development framework that should seek to build on the achievements of universities and colleges and the enthusiasm of students and continue to support institutions in their efforts to improve their sustainability. (para 28)

The phrase, “the enthusiasm of students” we believe is a reference to the cumulative evidence from consecutive student surveys commissioned by the Higher Education Academy and conducted by the NUS and Change Agents-UK, in 2010, 2011 and 2012.  These rigorous and extensive surveys of nearly 15,000 students have shown that students believe that employers value sustainability skills.  Almost 80% of second year students surveyed view universities as key facilitators of these by bringing environmental, social and economic issues together.

This is the first time that a grant letter has made reference to students, implicitly acknowledging the importance of learning to students and their prospective employers and to all our sustainable futures.  We welcome this new emphasis.  Indeed the HEFCE’s own web site refers to it; albeit in a rather dated reference to its 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy:

“Our vision is that, within the next 10 years, the HE sector in England will be recognised as a major contributor to society's efforts to achieve sustainability – through the skills and knowledge that its graduates learn and put into practice, its research and exchange of knowledge through business, community and public policy engagement, and through its own strategies and operations.”

Further, the 2010 grant letter referred to the following expectation:

“I hope universities and colleges will show leadership in this area, both in reducing their own emissions, and in seeking to include sustainability in their teaching and research.”

We hope that the Council’s new sustainable development framework will embrace this mandate for “leadership” (to which we would add, “and vision”) to support greater environmental sustainability in campus facilities as well as to seek ways to scale up the sector’s capacity to advance the much needed “educational gain” that accrues to students from the integration of learning for sustainability into and across the higher education curriculum.

Further, as the international evidence seems clear that student learning is most effective when it is complemented and reinforced by what institutions do in relation to sustainability through their research, campus management, and engagement with external stakeholders, we hope this whole institutional approach might be encouraged within the new framework.

Finally, we also hope that the Council will repeat its 2008 benchmark survey of institutional practice in relation to sustainability, in order to gauge institutional and sector progress over the last 5 years.

Yours sincerely

Professor Stephen Martin, President of the Charity-Change Agents UK

and signed on behalf of the following:

Professor Dame Julia King, CBE, Vice-Chancellor, Aston University

Sir Jonathon Porritt, CBE, Founder Director Forum for the Future, Chancellor, University of Keele

Professor Wendy Purcell, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, Plymouth University

Professor Nick Foskett, Vice-Chancellor, University of Keele

Professor David Green, Vice-Chancellor and CEO, University of Worcester

Professor Steven West, DL, Vice-Chancellor and CEO, University of the West of England

Professor Ray Ison, Professor in Systems, the Open University

Professor James Longhurst, Vice President, the Institution of Environmental Sciences

Professor Stephen Sterling, Professor in Sustainability, Plymouth University

Professor Brian Chalkley, Emeritus Professor, Plymouth University

Dr John Blewitt, Aston University Business School

Professor William Scott, Emeritus Professor, University of Bath


Think Tanks for ESD

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Rolf Jucker, of Switzerland's new éducation21, posted this on SHED SHARE a few days ago:

Since January 2013 I work in a new foundation here in Switzerland which is called éducation21 and is conceived as a one-stop-shop for ESD in Switzerland (pre-, primary and secondary schooling, teacher training (initial and CPD)).  This is an exciting new development because it might hopefully lead to an integrated systemic ESD understanding and practice.  Up until now partial perspectives such as global education, development education, health or environmental education dominated or even claimed to be the whole picture. In the course of setting up the new organization we decided that we wanted some sort of think tank to advise us, help us, push us along etc.  Within the organization the opinions are divided if we need:

- an advisory body which is essentially a group of ESD professionals who can professionally support and legitimize our work.

- a proper think tank which is composed of people from various backgrounds whose primary role is to think outside the box, to make sure the new organization focuses on the long-term aims and on innovation. This means that we – sorry, no offense intended to ESD professionals :=) – would rather not invite ‘the usual suspects’ (ESD experts who are anyway represented in our networks, etc.), but innovative, creative people from the media, business, youth education, organizational learning, sustainability experts, etc.

My questions to you therefore are:
- which approach do you think is better ? (you of course felt my preference through the biased phrasing above…)
- do you have any positive or negative experience with either form?
- if you know of functioning think tanks which work (they can be from any other field imaginable), how are they composed, how do they work, what makes them successful / effective?

These are questions that get to the heart of the problem of being an "ESD professional".  Here's my response to Rolf (though not yet to SHED SHARE) ...

Putting this as you do, the answer is obviously the "proper" think tank – which, of course, could (should?) have some of the ESD professionals as members.  I say this for 4 main reasons:

  • The need for critique – ESD is about sustainability and learning, viewed broadly, but is still a small and narrow field of activity.   Because of this, the concepts and practices inherent within ESD need to be challenged (critical friend activity) from a broad base; insiders, ie, ESD professionals, are not always good at this self-examination.  Although there are honourable exceptions to this judgement, I find too many ESD professionals default to promotion of their work, rather than being open to critically examining it.  Your Think Tank would hopefully comprise experts in education and sustainability with no particular axe to grind.
  • The need for a broad base – a well constructed Think Tank would likely draw in people from government (sustainability & education policy), from business and the trades unions (workplace learning and training), from community-based activity, from research – indeed, from all those areas of social activity where sustainability and learning interact.  A group of ESD professionals would probably not be able to do this as well.
  • The talking to each other problem – Just having ESD professionals there would limit the conversation, and the self-critique.  A well-constructed Think Tank would do the opposite, which is what you need.
  • Communicating widely – Think Tanks educate their members as well as members providing input, and thus are a good means of getting awareness of ESD out to wider audiences.  A group of ESD professionals could not do that.

Good Luck!


Anti-Neo-Liberals dust off their papers

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I was disappointed to see EER's going ahead with a special issue devoted to how terrible neo-liberals are.  After much editorial board tooing and froing about the pros (not many, I felt) and cons (too many to list) of the issue, it got the go-ahead.  I failed to see any merit at all in the proposal as I could not see where 'research' came into it.  It looked like another thinly disguised excuse to rubbish the views of anyone who has the temerity to see social value in competition, markets and trade.  It also looked as if, yet again, the liberal baby (which I'm quite attached to) was to go the way of the neo-liberal bathwater.  I fear that the usual suspects will already have blown the dust off their yellowing manuscripts, ready for that extra spell-check which is their idea of originality.


Unesco UK Policy Brief on ESD

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The latest policy brief  [No. 9] from the UK National Commission for Unesco was published yesterday on the UKNC's website.   The introduction says:

This policy brief provides an account of the current status of ESD across the UK.  It draws on evidence from independent experts from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales ... and sets out some of the characteristics of best practice and an analysis of future opportunities for enhancing the core role of education and learning in the pursuit of a more sustainable future.

I was pleased to contribute to this as part of a team very ably led by Steve Martin.  More on all that later on ...

Mark Avery's narrow view

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I've been nudged towards Mark Avery's blog which I didn't know about, but, then, I suppose he knows even less about me.  Avery is an Ex-RSBP Director of Conservation, and much more.

I was struck by the following passage, which is part of a posting about the plethora of Wildlife NGOs:

If there are too many wildlife NGOs (as I believe, and as some of you believe) then how will mergers or closer working come about?

There are four major stakeholders involved: the senior staff in the NGOs, their trustees and their members – oh yes, and the Nature whose conservation we all want.  But Nature doesn’t have a voice and so one or more of the other three need to speak up for Nature.  However, it is worth mentioning Nature because that should be a beneficiary of the decisions of the other three players. ...

This caught my eye because of its narrow view, and what I see as a missing stakeholder set.  That is, all those people who are neither staff (junior as well as senior), trustees, nor members; that is, everyone else.  From some NGO points of view, looking quite narrowly, that might be everyone in a town or a county.  However, if the NGO has a sustainability-focused vision that views matters much more broadly, or even holistically, it's likely to be everyone else – all of humanity, including the unborn and unbegot.  We do all have a very personal stake in this world.

How myopic; how revealing.