Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Daly News ...

📥  Comment, News and Updates

... carried a piece by Dan O'Neill recently on a post-growth economy in France.

I’ve recently returned from France’s first high-level “beyond growth” event, entitled An Innovative Society for the 21st Century. The conference, which included five separate sessions for the 250 or so attendees, was officially sponsored by François Hollande, President of the French Republic. It is one of only a handful of events that has received official government support for the topic of building a post-growth economy. The event was organised by IDDRI, the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, and was held in one of the historic buildings of the French National Assembly.

A number of politicians spoke at the event, including Claude Bartolone, the President of the National Assembly, who gave the opening address. Mr. Bartolone was more to the point than I was expecting and seemed to accept the end of the era of economic growth in France. He was careful to say that low growth does not mean an end to progress, and that the “social economy” could provide answers to the problems that we face. He made the particularly strong statement that “we can accept a 4 percent deficit, but we cannot accept 4 degrees of global warming”. To close, he said that “we must invent the world we want, starting now”.

It ends like this:

Although the conference was high on rhetoric and low on solutions at times, I still believe it was a success. For the first time, politicians and researchers were discussing the possibility of a post-growth economy in the halls of the French National Assembly — no small achievement.  It was clear from who was present, however, that the idea of a prosperous non-growing economy still resonates more with the left than the right.  Moreover, it seemed like there were quite a few former left-wing parliamentarians offering their support.  A more cynical person might question whether they would still do so if returned to power!

Umm!  It'll all be just fine so long as foreigners keep buying French debt which seems sure to increase in a post-growth economy that glories in living beyond its current means.  We are not much different.  Best not think too much about our grandchildren's children.  I wonder who they will find to buy our debt?


Video diversity in Rhode Island – and Oldham

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Years ago, I saw a grainy VHS video that explored the wide range of primary schools that existed in Rhode Island.  What struck me was their diversity and how parents could choose a school to fit with how they thought their children ought to be educated – well up to a point.  Elementary education in RI seemed to be in good health.  Nothing like that was possible here, and one of the reasons I've been supportive of the government's free (and other new) school approach was just for that reason – diversity and experimentation, both of which seem to me to be desirable in a free society.

It was never clear, of course, just how well this policy would turn out.  Would free schools be enclaves for the rich and selfish, or for the whacky and eccentric?  Would nutter groups, like creationists and scientologists, worm their way in to state funding and dominate what was on offer?  I held my breath.

A report in today's Observer sheds some light on how it's all developing.  93 new free schools open in September, along with university technical colleges (UTCs) and studio schools, which brings the number of free schools to 174.  Some new schools will offer "alternative provision" to pupil referral units run by local authorities.  There’s a bilingual primary school in London that will teach pupils in both German and English, an academy in Exeter run on Steiner principles, the Hackney Free School with a much longer school day, the Collective Spirit School in Oldham offering non-denominational secondary education in a borough where schools are said to be largely segregated along ethnic / religious lines, and Silverstone UTC, which is run with the support of the motor-racing community.  The Observer piece has a few case studies of such schools.

Of course, none of this will reassure or please those ideologically opposed to the idea, and who think that choice is a distraction (if not actually wicked) and local authorities should be calling the collective tune (even if the education that results is dire).  Early days, of course, and Ofsted is yet to call in most of them, but I'm cheered by these small beginnings.


Herman Daly on Fracking, Growth, and Limits

📥  News and Updates

Click here, to read Herman Daly on The Fracking of the Limits to Growth.  Here's a brief taste:

The first Woodlands Conference in 1975 was a great success.  Its theme was “Alternatives to Growth.”  In addition to the Meadows, speakers included E. F. Schumacher, Jay Forrester, Wendell Berry, Lester Brown, Amory Lovins, Bruce Hannon, Gerald Barney, and many others including yours truly.  The anti-limits position was led by Herman Kahn. The idea of a steady-state economy got a respectful hearing.  It was an excellent beginning, to be followed by four more conferences on the same theme.

Somehow by the third conference the theme had mutated from “limits and alternatives to growth” to “management of sustainable growth.”  The leadership passed from Meadows and Meadows to the Aspen Institute and the University of Houston.  Instead of challenging business-as-usual, the emphasis shifted to sucking up as usual to business interests.  The new, “more balanced” view was that we really must not limit growth, just focus on good growth rather than bad growth. Growth had somehow become “sustainable,” contrary to the main conclusion of The Limits to Growth.  The reasoning behind this reversal was kept vague.  There was an utter failure of nerve on the part of scientists and especially economists to confront the continuing challenge that George Mitchell and the Meadows had initially set up. Indeed, practically no economists attended the conference.  The very idea of limiting growth was too big a pill for economists, politicians, and most scientists to swallow. They coughed it up and silently spit it into their napkin at the conference banquet.

And it ends this way:

The bad news is that evidently things still have to get much worse before we will muster the courage and clarity to try to make them better.  The “good news” is that things are indeed getting worse — thanks to our mistaken belief that growth in GDP and its close correlate, resource throughput, must, even in a full world, always increase wealth faster than illth.

I confess, I had to look "illth" up!


Climate change is faster than education's response

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The ever-alert Learn from Nature pointed me to an article in a recent Observer on how the rate of climate change is likely to outstrip nature's speed of adaptation.  The article reports a paper in Ecology Letters, an on-line journal, whose abstract says:

A key question in predicting responses to anthropogenic climate change is: how quickly can species adapt to different climatic conditions?  Here, we take a phylogenetic approach to this question.  We use 17 time-calibrated phylogenies representing the major tetrapod clades (amphibians, birds, crocodilians, mammals, squamates, turtles) and climatic data from distributions of > 500 extant species.  We estimate rates of change based on differences in climatic variables between sister species and estimated times of their splitting.  We compare these rates to predicted rates of climate change from 2000 to 2100.  Our results are striking: matching projected changes for 2100 would require rates of niche evolution that are > 10 000 times faster than rates typically observed among species, for most variables and clades.  Despite many caveats, our results suggest that adaptation to projected changes in the next 100 years would require rates that are largely unprecedented based on observed rates among vertebrate species.

The Observer piece says:

The crucial point of the study is that it stresses a fact that is often conveniently ignored by climate change deniers.  It is not just the dramatic nature of the changes that lie ahead – melting icecaps, rising sea levels and soaring temperatures – but the extraordinary speed at which they are occurring.  Past transformations that saw planetary temperatures soar took millions of years to occur.  The one we are creating will take only a few generations to take place.  Either evolution speeds up 10,000-fold, which is an unlikely occurrence, or there will be widespread extinctions.

Educational change might be wise to speed up too – at least so think those who know that education (and its outcome and stimulus, learning) really matters in all this, and has something significant to contribute.

Of course, we are ourselves something of an endangered bunch as well, especially those of us who think that it's what learners learn that matters, and not what teachers (and their activist fellow travellers) think they should learn.  I put most of those who encourage / support / promote / cheer-lead ESD in this camp, despite what they say about themselves.  Their trouble (I generalise somewhat) is that they are so confident about what learning need to be that they are happy to set it all out in considerable detail as learning outcomes where what learners themselves think, or bring to the experience, seems to have little or no bearing on the matter.  Whilst deprecating normativity in others, they remain enthusiasts themselves.

Something to add here about motes and beams ...


New comment to the Environmental Audit Committee

📥  Comment

I represent the South West learning for Sustainability Coalition on the English Learning and Sustainability Alliance [ELSA] development group.  This is a comment by ELSA to the EAC's current review of Sustainability in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills [BIS].

We write to you on behalf of the English Learning and Sustainability Alliance established in 2012.  The Alliance brings together England’s key stakeholder groups with interests in learning and sustainability in order to inform national debates and influence policy and practice.  As a ‘Group of Groups’ the purpose of the Alliance is to lead, promote and influence the strategic policy discourse on learning and sustainability in all contexts across sectors and interests in England, working with key practitioners, strategic bodies and policy makers.  In setting up this group we were mindful that for many of those engaged in the strategic policy discourse on how to promote, influence and help link and coordinate learning and sustainability within and across the diverse learning contexts which exist in England, and who recognise the pivotal role of learning in sustainable development, there is an absence of any independent group to facilitate and lead this important societal and economic challenge.  One of our key operating principles is to monitor and review national progress on learning and sustainability and make recommendations for the way ahead.

In this context we are keen to keep the Environment Audit Committee informed of some of the national developments, especially where they contribute to national policy.  Currently, we see the contribution that education and learning for sustainability can make to job creation and the green economy as well as to raising standards and quality in all learning contexts as of paramount importance in moving the UK to a more sustainable and prosperous future.  BIS has a crucial role to play in this respect.  We would draw your attention to the following recent policy developments relating to the review you are undertaking, some of which you will of course know about:

1. We were pleased that this year’s government grant letter from BIS to the Higher Education Finding Council for England as it has since 2008 highlighted the important role higher education plays in developing sustainable development within this sector of education.  The letter states:

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.  We anticipate this will give the HEFCE a more widely accepted mandate to support and influence the development of innovative ways of leading curriculum and teaching reform within our universities.

We think a similar letter to the Skills Funding Agency would help embed sustainability into the curriculum and learning of the FE and Skills sectors.  Given that universities and business influence much of the 16-19 curriculum, and that the green economy is now developing strongly, we believe BIS should work with professional bodies, employers and universities and FE colleges to review the economy's sustainability skills needs and the appropriateness of what is taught to 16-19 year olds.

2. We are also pleased that the Quality Assurance Agency for higher education is introducing good practice guidance which aims to link learning and sustainability to the quality enhancement of learning outcomes for students.

3. The results of a recent review of education for sustainable development commissioned by the UK National Commission for UNESCO( and a fuller version published in the on line academic journal “Sustainability”( ) outline many of the issues that government departments like BIS face in terms implementing policy on learning and sustainability.

The Sustainability paper discusses the current status of all aspects of education for sustainable development (ESD) across the United Kingdom (UK), drawing on evidence from its political jurisdictions (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), and setting out some characteristics of best practice.  The paper analyses current barriers to progress, and outlines future opportunities for enhancing the core role of education and learning in the pursuit of a more sustainable future.  The authors state that

although effective ESD exists at all levels, and in most learning contexts across the UK, with good teaching and enhanced learner outcomes, the wider adoption of ESD would result from the development of a strategic framework which puts it at the core of the education policy agenda in every jurisdiction.  This would provide much needed coherence, direction and impetus to existing initiatives, scale up and build on existing good practice, and prevent unnecessary duplication of effort and resources.   The absence of an overarching UK strategy for sustainable development that sets out a clear vision about the contribution learning can make to its goals is a major barrier to progress.”

This is very much in line with what the EAC said in 2003 when it reviewed progress on learning for sustainability but the authors go further and suggest this strategy needs to be coupled with the establishment of a pan-UK forum for overseeing the promotion, implementation and evaluation of ESD.  ELSA believes that at a time of austerity its establishment could help prevent unnecessary duplication of effort and resources.  Nevertheless it is encouraging to note that the DFE has begun to explore how best to exchange best practice in productive ways between the devolved administrations, amongst practitioners from across education sectors and civil society organizations.  We believe a similar process championed by BIS for universities and Further Education and training would help scale up the provision of sustainability learning at all levels from age 14 years and above.  However, as yet, there is no coherent view at policy or practice level about how ESD can most appropriately be experienced by learners, in a progressive sense, from, say the age of 4 to 21 and beyond.  A commission set up to examine and report on this question would help institutions plan effectively.

4. The UNESCO policy review points out that since 2010, government emphasis on sustainable development and ESD policy has diminished in England and Northern Ireland, although not necessarily in institutional practice.  In Wales, the sustainability bill is seen as a major feature of Welsh Government policy, although there is evidence of less policy emphasis now being given to ESD.  As a consequence, encouragement of ESD through policy in these jurisdictions has become less prominent.  The exception is Scotland where the devolved government has placed a much greater emphasis on social equity and the environment as key policy targets.  The Scottish Government has set itself the target of making Scotland a world leader in securing its own energy needs from renewable sources and sees this as a significant driver for job creation and addressing social inequality.  Here ESD is seen by the government as playing an important strategic role in implementing its policy objectives.  The unique role the independent General Teaching Council (GTCS) has played in promoting learning for sustainability is a further key driver in distinguishing Scotland from the rest of the UK.

In Northern Ireland, Wales and England the reduced central emphasis on ESD is partly explained by a degree of ambiguity about [i] what policy ought to be in relation to education and training more generally, and in particular, about what role they might play in supporting the emerging green economy; and partly because of [ii] the prevailing UK government view that supports smaller and less directive central governance, giving more responsibility to institutions at a local level.  This has resulted in a loss of policy coherence across government and continues to lead to mixed messages and confusion for many of those in formal and non-formal educational contexts.  Further, responsibility for policy formulation on sustainable development is often shared across several government departments and whilst, in principle, this is no bad thing, in practice it leads to a narrow focus and silo approach to sustainable development.  It can also lead to less commitment to its implementation and a lack of coherence in policy.  In this respect, the role of ESD in support of the objectives of a sustainable society is often marginalized, for example in the development of indicators where there are currently no meaningful learning-focused ones.

We hope these few comments help set out some of the current challenges affecting the implementation of more effective learning for sustainability in the UK and within the current remit of BIS.  In adult and continuing education and further education the impetus for promoting learning and sustainability has diminished and the uncertainty surrounding the closure of the lead agency for sustainability in FE, the Learning and Skills Improvement Service is compounding the issue.

We look forward to supporting and contributing to the work of the EAC on future issues in which learning and sustainability feature.


Eco-school report from Untidy Britain

📥  Comment, New Publications

The Keep Britain Untidy group has released a reportEco-Schools England: exploring success to inform a new horizon. This is the gist of the Executive Summary:

In February 2013, Keep Britain Untidy commissioned independent research into the Eco-Schools programme.  This research engaged directly with schools to explore what success means for Eco-Schools, and how that success is achieved.  More specifically, the research looked at what makes Eco-Schools successful as a framework and how the programme could be made even better.  In this report, we outline and respond to the key findings, summarised below.

What success looks like: The Eco-Schools programme does create positive environmental change, but environmental improvement is only half the story. Encouragingly, the research also found evidence of positive impacts on wellbeing, behaviour, motivation and cognitive skills that benefit the whole school community.

Achieving success: There are three factors critical to the success of Eco-Schools:

  • A framework that remains easy to follow and realistic to implement;
  • The presence of professional internal and external support networks for eco-coordinators and committees;
  • A continued emphasis on the importance of sustainability education in the National Curriculum.

Building on success: To make the programme even better we need to focus on:

  • Developing the framework to better engage secondary schools;
  • Improving the supply of direct support and peer support for eco-coordinators;
  • Further engaging school leadership teams to enhance their understanding of the Programme benefits.

The research concluded that the Eco-Schools framework positively supports schools to deliver effective environmental education.  This report contributes to the growing body of evidence that indicates that schools that embrace education for sustainability are also schools who succeed and do well.

I should declare a position.  I think that the Eco-Schools framework provides a sound way for schools new to the idea of sustainability to get involved and make some progress.  I am more dubious, however, about whether the limited demands that the Eco-Schools framework makes on schools is appropriate, if significant difference is to be made to the experience of all students in a school.  In particular, I think it remains very easy for schools to get, and retain, a green flag, which leads to schools potentially having a quite false idea of their own achievements.

I read the report with these views in mind.  I also read it looking for issues that might provide a counterpoint to its generally positive and encouraging tone.  I did not find this difficult.  I'll give one example: the second quote on page 13 is from a 9 year old student:

"Our other classmates want to be on [the Eco-committee] as well but we’ve been chosen!"

This is supposed to be a positive comment, but it seems to give the game away especially as whole-school populations are supposed to benefit from Eco-schools, not just individual students.  This is evidence for one of the more pertinent criticisms of Eco-Schools – that it only reaches a minority of teachers and students.

I understand that new brooms in Untidy Britain are set on sweeping such problems away.  All power to their arm ...


Sustainability in learning and skills: a legacy of knowledge

📥  Comment, New Publications

So, farewell to the Learning and Skills Improvement Service which ceased trading at the end of July.  The sustainability part of LSIS was always strong thanks to the steady guiding hand of Conrad Benefield, the LSIS Sustainability Programme Development Manager since 2010.

At the end of its life, there was a flurry of outputs under the heading:  Sustainability in learning and skills: a legacy of knowledge which comprises "three research reports on sustainability which set out to inform and serve FE and skills sector learning providers as they look to embed sustainability skills and ESD in their learning provision, building on the support and resources that LSIS has offered over the last three years".  As Conrad said:

“In their way, each of the reports is a testament to the commitment and achievement of the sector in getting to grips with sustainability and sustainable development.  They reflect the depth and breadth of effective practice in the sector, the enthusiasm and commitment of sustainability leaders and champions, and the contribution that the sector can continue to make to sustainable economic growth and sustainable communities.

We encourage our strategic partners in the sector to consider how the learning from these reports can best be taken forward.  But more importantly, leaders, teachers and other practitioners across the sector can usefully learn from the findings in these reports and the learning and practice that they present.  These reports add to the range of sustainability resources already available to the sector on the LSIS Excellence Gateway, which include the Sustaining Our Future Framework, the Reaching Forward Index and case studies and resources from more than 50 sector-led projects.”

The three reports are:

  • Embedding Sustainability in Teaching Learning and Curriculum:  This project aimed to explore the relevance of sustainability to education and training; to identify the specific skills and knowledge that teaching staff require to embed sustainability; and to identify barriers, challenges and solutions.
  • Sustainability Skills for Growth: This project aimed to explore sustainability skills, their relevance to employment, employers and business, and the opportunities challenges and barriers to the FE and skills sector in leading the development of those skills.
  • Springboards to Sustainability: This project assessed the impact of the 13 projects completed in the 2012-13 round of the LSIS Stepping Up in Sustainability Fund, as well as the key ingredients for success that could inform others looking to take forward similar projects.

I have tried to download these three times now, and it works – after a fashion.  But what I get looks like a government censor's black marker pen has been at them with a vengeance – redactions, redactions, all is redactions.  It could be my computer, I suppose.  Or it might be official revenge against LSIS for daring to exist.


New campaign from PlantsOut!

📥  News and Updates

PlantsOut! is a pressure group formed to resist the steady rise in non-English plants found in the countryside, gardens, planters, window boxes and vases generally.

Today, their website announces a new partnership with UKIP to resist the flood of Bulgarian, Rumanian and Croatian plant varieties that will arrive as EU immigration rules are relaxed because of widening membership.  PlantsOut! spokesperson for diversity and purity, Dr Jonathan Oldbuck, said that this policy development should not be seen in a crude nationalistic sense.

"We are not advocating English plants just for the English.  Far from it, the glory of England's native flora should be open to all who want to pay to see it, and Plantsout welcomes foreign visitors – providing [i] they don't bring their plants with them, and [ii] don't forget to go home again!"

Dr Oldbuck said that PlantsOut! planned to partner with other wildlife charities in a remorseless drive against invasive species such as:

Japanese Knotweed,    Himalayan Balsam,    Parrot's Feather,    Floating Pennywort,    Himalayan Knotweed, False Acacia,    Curly Waterweed,    Shallon,    Water Primroses, Pirri-pirri-bur,    Large Flowered Waterweed,    Spanish bluebells,  , ...

... and annoying Dutch flowers of all kinds, especially gaudy daffodils.


Udi and Kelly go mainstream

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

Those of us following Kelly Teamey and Udi Mandel's progress round the globe via their blog will not have been particularly informed by last week's piece in the THE, even though we might have been a little bit disappointed at its uncritical nature – it is the THE, after all, and K & U are making some big claims about what they are doing.

If you're new to all this, then a look at their short 'taster' film is a good idea to get some insight into what they're up to.

The TES piece ends:

The pair’s documentary, Enlivened Learning, will be completed by May 2014 and will be distributed free online.  “Our intention is to encourage accessible and critical debate on higher education around the world,” explains Teamey, “and open up imaginative possibilities of what learning can be.”

As an ex-colleague of Kelly's (with shared research activities going back years), I'll be alerting the ESD establishment (QAAHEA that is) to this.  Meanwhile, view on ...


Gove, the curriculum, and all that

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The Education Forum carried a sharp article recently on Gove, history and the history curriculum.  It's here.

This will make pleasant reading for all those who despise Gove's overly-political influence on the school / national curriculum – and that not inconsiderable number who just don't like the man.  It's about a Simon Schama talk at the Hay Festival.  This is how the piece begins ...

Prof Schama, who visited classes as part of his research, called the finalised document “insulting and offensive”, “pedantic and utopian” and accused Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, of constructing a “ridiculous shopping list” of subjects.

  The new curriculum proposes to teach children history in chronological order, and is intended to give them a sense of the triumphs of the British people.

  But, speaking at the Telegraph Hay Festival, Prof Schama — who acknowledged his own contribution to the plans — said that the syllabus was like “1066 and All That, but without the jokes”.

  “This is a document written by people who have never sat and taught 12-year-olds in a classroom,” he told an audience of teachers.  “None of you should sign up to it until we trap Michael Gove in a classroom and tell him to get on with it.

"  “You want to say to him, 'Let’s go into a class of nine-year-olds and do the kingdom of Mercia with them. I would love to see how you would do that’.”

He added the new syllabus would require teaches to “whoosh” through the English, Scottish and Irish civil wars in “something like 45 minutes”, while the French Revolution received “a drive-by 10 minutes”.  “The list of subjects seems to be essentially memories of A-levels circa 1965, embalmed in aspic and sprinkled with tokenism,” he said. “Tokenism of the wrong kind.”

He claimed that the proposals were too focused on white males, with too much emphasis on “how Britain influenced the world” rather than vice versa.  He added that the “insulting, offensive, imperviousness of what it takes to unite together the history of the glorious heritage of Britain” could be demonstrated by the inclusion of Clive of India, who established the supremacy of the East India Company in 18th-century Bengal.  Calling him a “sociopathic, corrupt thug”, who made “our most dodgy bankers look like a combination of Mary Poppins and Jesus Christ”, Prof Schama said the topic would not help ethnic minority children understand their own place in the world.

History is not about self-congratulation. It’s not really about chasing the pedigree of the wonderfulness of us,” he said. “Nor about chasing the pedigree of the reprehensible awful nature of us. History is meant to keep the powerful awake at night and keep them honest.”

Yes.  Every aspect of education has that capability and purpose, and one focused on sustainability particularly so.  Oddly, Conservative governments tend not to be too keen on that purpose as they are on, say, cultural transmission and replication, not forgetting the tendency to have a bottom-line focus on jobs, skills and the economy.  That's one reason those of us with an interest in sustainability are having our present difficulties with curriculum reform.  The newly-revised national curriculum, now out for yet another *!*!*! consultation – the last I trust, and one I'll not be taking part in – does have a modest focus on climate change, but not on the unsustainability of the current socio-economic system.  This is like a doctor fixing symptoms, but ignoring underlying causes [in a dying patient].

NB, I've added the bracketed text because this is how some people see it. But it's far too David [gloomy doomy] Orr for me.  Meanwhile, here's a different Guardian piece on Gove and curriculum which has nice lines on exceeding children's potential, on how 'quality' always needs an adjective, and on the use of "disappointment" – a word to use even more than I currently do, it seems.  I shall need no reminding.