Speaking in Inverness – sort of

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

Perhaps oddly, I gave my first talk via Skype the other day.  To Inverness, virtually, then, at a conference on Educating for a Low Carbon Future organised by the University of Highlands and Islands, SEAM Centre at Inverness College, CIFAL Scotland, United Nations Institute of Training and Research, in partnership with the Scottish Government.  Ideally, I'd have gone there and then set off for Torridon, but it was not to be.

I didn't think the technology was much good, but was told it was ok most of the time.  It was certainly an odd experience; I missed eye contact, of course, and had no idea how well (or if) my jokes went down, or how my poking of Eco-Schools with a stick was received.  Indeed, they turned the video off half-way through.  So, I didn't feel that the trade-off between convenience and quality was all that good.

I spoke (15 minutes) on the influence of the Decade.  Here's what I said:

My first point is that it’s difficult to say anything about ESD across the UK because of the devolved responsibilities for education of every sort.  I’ll comment, however, on the policy contexts of Scotland, Wales and England, and on the school, university and FE sectors, and end with a few comments about achievements and tensions.

These 5 points about the difficulty of data collection and analysis around ESD are significant:

  1. Not everything that takes place in educational settings (viewed broadly) that focuses on sustainability / sustainable development is referenced as ESD
  2. Not all developments that are classed as ESD are either congruent with UNESCO’s vision or coherent amongst themselves
  3. There is no consensus as to what is to count (or not count) as ESD – that is, as an education focusing on sustainability – and little agreement as to whether this is a problem.
  4. It is always difficult to separate out the contribution to learning of targeted interventions, from other influences on the learner such as media, family, peers, commerce, etc
  5. It will be impossible to identify the precise influence of the Decade on learning, on changes to educational provision, and on policy.

Although all this makes surveying activity difficult and demanding, it's a reminder that ESD is a broad church that has its share of dogmas, arcane practices, clerical disputes and schisms – as well as attempts at ecumenical harmony.  Quite clearly, however, those interested in ESD can have widely differing interests and assumptions about both purpose and process, and all have something to contribute to learning about improving the human condition and our relationship with nature.  It’s also important to remember that ESD is still only a small fraction of all that takes place under the banner of education – and, to remember that the point is to change mainstream practice, rather than just influence a minority.


In UK policy terms, whilst the rhetoric about the importance of sustainability remains reasonably strong, there are a number of indicators that suggest less enthusiasm – or conviction, perhaps.  Thus, the picture now is not as positive as it was 2 years ago.  Whilst the world-leading carbon-reduction policies and targets are still in place, the delivery strategy lacks a coherent vision.

Wales pursued a principled line on sustainable development, enshrining its pursuit in statute, and espousing what it termed ESDGC – that is ESD which emphasizes citizenship – as it surely should.

The Scottish Government says that sustainable development is integral to its overall purpose, but it also calls for sustainable economic growth.  Similarly, when the UK government, which, as you know, is the greenest government ever, redefines sustainable development as development which promotes economic growth, you’re entitled to be sceptical.  This easy slippage from sustainable development to sustainable economic growth seems increasingly common and adds to the policy uncertainty within which educators operate

Looking across sectors

Higher education seems the sector with the keenest developments ‘on the ground’.  There seems a lot of informed enthusiasm from individuals, encouraged and supported by institutions as well as by the NUS, HEA and others.  Funding councils have provided a little research and development funding, and the HEA is trying to be a champion of ESD.  Its green academy development programme is stimulating institutional change whilst demanding that senior managers and students are centrally involved.  However, whilst there is evidence of some institutional leadership in terms of sustainability, there are no convincing examples of a university’s taking a successful whole-institution approach – let alone a transformative one – to sustainability.  Apart, perhaps, from Aberdeen with its recent curriculum commission with its focus on graduate attribute, though even here, the emphasis on sustainability seems muted.

There is certainly no shared view as to how ESD in universities does or should contribute to graduate attributes.  However, in comparative terms, I’d say its HE where the most innovative work is taking place – and, it’s HE that understands that workplaces have fundamentally changed because of the policy focus on sustainability.

FE – briefly

By and large, the tensions between present and future skills needs are greatest in colleges.  For example, the 2010 Unesco survey of ESD across the UK, noted that the active learning styles that are seen as integral to learning and sustainability tend to be difficult to link to FE’s usual approaches to teaching.

Despite considerable effort, and some prominent practice, particularly in Scotland, FE remains the Cinderella sector for ESD.  It’s a real pity that the sustainability agenda has not been seized upon by FE policy makers and leaders as a means of raising the status of what it, and its graduates, do.


Whilst there are some outstanding examples of practice, schools seem far too reliant on outside help from NGOs – particularly Eco-schools.  NGOs tend to have their own takes on sustainability and on ESD – and all pursue their own agendas and interests.  The Scottish government sees Eco-schools as a vector for its policies and has encouraged schools to sign up.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that 98% of local authority schools in Scotland have done so, or that 40% already have green flags.  But, in the absence of valid data on what young people are learning – and doing as a result – you’d be naive to believe that all this necessarily means very much.  Whilst Eco-schools offers a structured way into a consideration of issues, it’s only a way in, and such means should not be confused with desired learning ends.

Whilst the ESDGC brand is retained in Wales, it seems marginal to resolving the well-publicised problems facing the Welsh school system as exposed by the OECD’s PISA studies – and no one seems to believe that ESDGC has anything much to contribute to resolving these difficulties – which is a shame.

Scotland remains the most consistent in its espousal of ESD-like initiatives and is where our schools do best in PISA-type evaluations, but whether these are linked, however, is not at all clear.  For those who’re tempted to think that ESD shouldn’t have anything to do with globalised studies like PISA, I'd just say two things: First, deliberatively excluding ourselves from mainstream educational interests seems risky, and secondly, that PISA studies do seek to measure the sort of critical thinking and analytical skills that ESD is supposed to foster.

There certainly seems no shared view across schools as to how ESD can contribute progressively across age groups, and primary schools still tend to be much more enthusiastic and engaged than secondary ones.  Indeed, it’s hard to see how secondary schools will ever take ESD to heart whilst examinations at 16 capture attention, constrict curriculum, and stifle imagination.  And, though there have been some commendable interventions around school leadership, these have hardly been systemic – or even systematic – initiatives.  A positive note, however, is NUS data which shows that students entering HE from schools are positive and motivated about sustainability.  So somebody’s doing something right.

Looking back across the Decade – and ahead

I’d say that the number of individuals and groups that are interested and active has grown considerably, particularly, as I‘ve noted, young people.  Despite this, and the increasingly favourable national and international context – that’s to say the greater prominence of the problems we all face – I’d say that their effect on institutional practice remains marginal.

A particular tension now exists across all of education.  This is a tension between stability and change – and between certainty and speculation.  There’s an historic obligation to safeguard, apply and pass on existing knowledge – and also to challenge it.  This is true today as never before.

ESD is best seen as a responsive social learning process which is both a part of, and a preparation for, informed, active, open-minded, social engagement with the key issues of the day.  It follows, therefore, that institutions, need to establish learning goals that are critically focused on sustainable living and working.  Doing so, will guide the formal and informal work that they do with students and their communities in order to better reflect the existential realities and choices we all face.  Clearly, education policies need to be reviewed in order to ensure this is stimulated.

I’d say that practitioners need to focus on their conceptual and pedagogical strengths, and on collaborating with each other, in order to make student experience more than the sum of its parts.  Practitioners have always done the first of these, of course, but rarely the second.  In part, this is because of institutional and curriculum structures, but not entirely.  It’s also because of their training.

In the 2010 UNESCO ESD survey across the UK, a number of challenges to embedding ESD across sectors were identified.  These included:

  • tensions between campaigning and helping people learn
  • the need to avoid a narrow focus              and
  • the need for better professional development and training

The balance between an open-minded approach to learning and the learner, as opposed to the promotion of particular behaviours or ideas, is important – and evidence suggests that we still tend to have too much of the latter at the expense of the former.  How Fairtrade is approached is a good example of this.

The 2010 ESD report was concerned that an instrumental focus on climate change would be narrow and would detract from the broad sort of approach to sustainability that ESD embodies.  As for professional development, well, I’m old enough to remember when UNESCO used to say that teacher education was the priority of priorities.  No more it seems, and I’d say the Decade has had minimal impact on any of this.

In summary, then, I’d say that the Decade has seen growing interest and activity in sustainability across education sectors.  Apart from NGOs, most of this, however, has come from the grass-roots, from teachers and lecturers, and from students.  And, although its penetration is limited, it’s all to be welcomed.  It would be good, however, to know much more about what’s being learned and what difference it’s making.  Less obvious is how much the Decade has led to transformative change within institutions – and to the thinking of policy-makers themselves.  This takes longer, of course, than merely changing student experience at the margins, and has everything to do with a re-orientation of purpose and values. So it could be that all we have to do is to wait  – but you’d be crassly optimistic to believe this.

I’d say, the next phase of the Decade – or the next Decade, maybe, needs to focus on leadership and institutional transformation if we’re to make a real difference.

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations


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