New comment to the Environmental Audit Committee

Posted in: 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.

Posted in: Comment


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response