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Education for Sustainable Development

February 14, 2004 12:00 AM
By Stephen and Maureen Martin in Challenge

Stephen and Maureen Martin look at the Government's new action plan

At a Sustrans conference in Leicester last September, Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, launched an Action Plan for Sustainable Development in Education and Skills (

For the vast majority of people, this is hardly newsworthy. But to many in education, NGOs and professional institutions, this has caused a huge surge of interest and engagement. The reasons for this are relatively easy to explain.

The most obvious is the fact that this is the first occasion ever that the Department for Education and Skills has sought to engage pro-actively in the sustainability imperative. Another important reason is that the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development ( will run from 2005 to 2015 and the government has made a commitment to its success.

Sustainability is also at the heart of Liberal Democrat policies, as set out in our Policy Paper 14 A Strategy for Sustainability, approved in September 2000. All of these developments recognise that every one of us - whether at home, in the work place or in the wider community - makes decisions that impact on consumption and production of resources. How we interact with the natural and physical resources of the Earth is of critical importance if we are to achieve a better quality of life in the future. Also engagement with this issue will not be effective or even possible without capacity building through education and learning in sustainable development.

The action plan sets out to support "…education providers to operate in a more environmentally sustainable way - and to teach it as well. Making sure that children, young people, and adult learners are aware that what they do in their day to day lives has huge implications for everyone in this country and in the world at large."

The speed and urgency of the draft, consultation and launch of the action plan is to be applauded, but is not unconnected to a highly critical report by the Parliamentary Environment Audit Committee (EAC) on the role of the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in Education for Sustainability. The report ( was published in July 2003 following wide-ranging consultations with members of the government, education providers, NGOs and professional institutions. Joan Walley MP, chair of the EAC sub-committee which conducted the enquiry, said at the launch of the report: "Education can be a significant driver for change but the DfES has been slow to grasp its key role in underpinning the Government's sustainable development strategy and ensuring that Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is integrated into life long learning.

"We are not talking about a radical overhaul of educational practice, just ensuring that we are equipping ourselves to better understand and engage with the challenges of the 21st century. We need engineers that understand the requirements of our international climate change commitments, business school graduates who understand corporate social responsibility and citizens that understand how their individual actions can make a difference".

"This summer Charles Clarke will be considering the latest draft of an action plan for sustainable development for his Department. This includes plans for its policy on Education for Sustainable Development and will be finalised in will provide him with some pertinent summer reading. The Secretary of State is currently considering a number of education and skills reforms which add up to a significant opportunity to integrate education for sustainable development at every stage of lifelong learning".

Some of the recommendations and conclusions of the EAC are as follows:

Development does not set out a clear vision of the contribution which learning can make to achieve the Government's sustainable development goals. We recommend that the Government rectify this omission during the forthcoming review of the strategy.

DEFRA's two major awareness raising campaigns relating to sustainability to date have been ill focused and less than half-hearted. We believe that the funding of any further large-scale, general awareness campaigns would not provide value for money. We welcome the commitment of the Secretary of State for Education to action on this critical agenda. However, as one of us was the representative of the former Department for Education on the Toyne Committee on Environmental Responsibility - An Agenda for FHE, we are only too aware that, however compelling the written arguments for actions, it will only come about if there is clear and unambiguous recognition that action needs:

a) Effective partnerships with other organizations

b) A change in behaviour and attitudes

c) Sufficient capacity

d) Effective targeting of existing and future resources

e) Increased and sustained emphasis by everyone in government that sustainable development is of critical and unavoidable importance to us all as individuals, as businesses as societies and as a species.

As Toyne said a decade ago, "There is much to be done, it needs doing urgently and it will require concerted effort." Our comments focus not on the individual actions but more on how the action plan is to be implemented. In many of the constituencies and organisations with which we work there is a serious question hanging over the action plan and its ability to secure widespread commitment to its enactment.

First, the absence of a vision (or mission) for the plan is seen by many as a major impediment, largely because it will be more difficult to facilitate (even sell!) the action required without it. Second, the absence of a DfES strategy which sets out its main strategic objectives and how these will be integrated into existing policy frameworks for education and skills, is also seen as a significant weakness.

Perhaps the action plan should set out a process for development of both a vision and strategy for the DfES and other government funded agencies? There are also serious questions being asked about monitoring and evaluation and the critical question of how will progress be assessed and communicated. An action plan that ignores the process and products of such enquiries will seriously lack credibility and hence prompt a lukewarm response from those whom government wish to participate sustainably in its implementation!

There is a further dimension to the implementation of the action plan. As well as setting out clearly the strategic/policy context, it will be important to set out some clear operating principles. We set out some, which are already being 'aired' as critical success factors for the plan:

i. Inclusiveness: Successful implementation will only be achieved through an inclusive approach to action. Any hint of an 'exclusive' relationship between the department and one or more NGOs or other agencies will reduce the effectiveness of the plan.

ii. Systems approach: Successful implementation (and integration) requires recognition that we are dealing with highly complex issues and that logic alone is an inadequate means to deal with sustainable development. This is because there is no simple cause and effect relationship. Systems thinking looks at the complicated pattern of multiple causes and relationships that make up a whole, and can simplify by taking multiple partial views or perspectives.

iii. Capacity building: There is insufficient experience and learning about sustainable development in many of our educational and training organisations. There will need to be a huge initial push on capacity building in all sectors if we are to achieve any significant change from the action plan.

iv. Monitoring and evaluation: Successful evaluation will only come from clearly defining the temporal and spatial dimensions of the action plan. There will also be a need to define what trade-offs there are between the need for sustainability and other desirable goals (such as economic growth) of the various actions. And how should we define a sustainable university, college or school or indeed a government department?