It is widely reported that the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has now abandoned the department’s sustainable schools strategy and, hence, any active government promotion of, and support for, the idea and reality of sustainable schools. I say “widely reported” because, although I have not seen any formal announcement, and the new DfE website says nothing about sustainability or ESD, everyone seems to think it’s fait accompli. Evidence of this is the recent email petition from People and Planet where (young) people are urged to personalise the following message:
Dear Secretary of State for Education
School students are our future, and if we want a sustainable, low-carbon future we need the government to support schools in teaching these issues. A truly green government would put sustainability teaching at the heart of its education strategy.
I call on you to:
- ensure that the government creates the opportunities for all students to learn about sustainability issues
- provide all schools with access to resources and education which supports them in becoming truly sustainable schools.
Clicking SEND speeds the message to Mr Gove’s inbox. This isn’t bad as messages go, and certainly points up the contrast between this decision and the government’s claim to be the greenest ever, and an enthusiastic promoter of sustainable development. Thus, it’s hard to think that the withdrawal is ideological. So, perhaps it was simply finance-driven, in the sense that the able people within the sustainable schools unit can now be released for more important work, as the government sees it.
The sustainable schools strategy is a powerful one, not only because it has good ideas and is meaningful for schools, but also (and in large part) because it came from the DCSF. It is unusual to find this happening, as education ministries around the world do tend to leave it to others. In a review essay on sustainable schools, to be published in Environmental Education Research, I ended with this thought:
… it is appropriate and salutary to return to Mary Clark’s distinction between the dominant processes of moulding society to fit the status quo and its received wisdoms, and the enabling of a critique of beliefs and assumptions which aids the creation of new ways of thinking. Whilst a small unit within the UK’s DCSF has been doing the latter, and doing it well within large resource constraints, the DCSF mainstream has been focused on the former, and it is this, almost bi-polar, climate within which sustainable schools are struggling to evolve.
Thus, one way of reading what Mr Gove seems to have done is as a return to letting Defra, NAEE, SE-Ed, etc speak for an education focusing on environmental integrity and ecosystem quality, and DfID, DEA, TIDE~, etc speak for an education focusing on international development, global citizenship and social justice. However, whatever Mr Gove now decides to do, he cannot undo the fact that, for five years, the DCSF has stimulated the creative bringing together of these ideas across all aspects of what a school does. The challenge for all of us who think this work is vital for all our (and others’) futures is to continue this work together. In doing so, I hope the Secretary of State’s now unfunded, but very public, blessing will be ringing in our ears.
NB, This comment is to be published in the National Association for Environmental Education's journal: Environmental Education.