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A beginning, not the end. Can the new DfE climate change strategy deliver the education for sustainability we need?
(27/04/22)
Silhouette of boy reading a book under a tree

MORGAN PHILLIPS HEADSHOT

Morgan Phillips, Head of Insight

At the bottom of every page on the gov.uk website there is a blue box. In it you can find a question and three buttons. The question reads: ‘Is this page useful?’ The buttons are labelled ‘Yes’, ‘No’, and ‘Report a problem’.

Last week, the Department for Education (DfE) published a policy paper on gov.uk. It is their long-awaited strategy on climate change and sustainability, full title: Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems’. Is it useful? Do we need to report a problem?

There are two types of education: education for sustainability and, by definition, education against sustainability. Children, young people, and adults experience both. Through our learning (in the classroom and beyond) we gain knowledge and skills that we apply in our day to day lives. The net result – for the environment and social justice – is either positive or negative. For the majority of those of us who live in the global North, the net impact is negative; overwhelmingly so. Education for sustainability is tussling with education against sustainability and losing, badly.

Unfortunately, simply increasing skills and knowledge about sustainability (and climate change) isn’t going to fix this problem on its own. Why? Because the acquisition of knowledge and skills is only really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what education does.

Whether they want to or not, educators do so much more when they interact with learners. For instance – and crucially – they play a role in shaping, nurturing, reinforcing (or challenging) a cacophony of values, worldviews, and beliefs. This has a considerable effect on learners as they grow – values, beliefs, and worldviews are deeply held things. They are the foundations upon which our lives are built, they are the filters that cloud the way we see the world, they are our guiding stars. They matter deeply. When they change, we change, sometimes profoundly – and, as IPCC report after IPCC report makes clear, some profound change in the global North is urgently needed.

Exploration of the values, worldviews, and beliefs that dominate in today’s societies is, therefore, legitimate territory for sustainability educators. It is arguably their most vital task, for it can have a positive and transformative effect on learners and therefore the world.

What does this look like in practice? Educators could, for example, lead some inquiry-based learning into the values, beliefs and worldviews that consumerism perpetuates. Learners can be helped to examine the beliefs and worldviews that they have been living their lives by. They might question worldviews like ‘humans are separate from nature’, and beliefs like ‘greed is good’, or ‘material wealth = happiness’… and begin to let go of them.  

 

To facilitate an inquiry into beliefs and worldviews like these is to educate for sustainability, for it is likely to diminish a learner’s desire for a ‘goods life’ and help them re-define the ‘good life’ as something far less consumerist and far less detached from nature. Whereas to deliberately reinforce these worldviews and beliefs, or to shut down critique of them, is to educate against sustainability – it leaves learners striving for material wealth (the ‘goods life’) and in a toxic, separated relationship with nature.  

There are plenty more values, worldviews, and beliefs that – for better or worse – shape today’s society. Educators can support their learners to explore them, and in doing so educate for sustainability. This does not have to happen in the confines of the Geography, Science, or the soon-to-emerge Natural History classroom; it can happen in English, PSHE, History, and just about any other class too. It is possible in any domain to critique, for example, how self-interest values have risen to prominence, how compassionate values are being weakened, and how changing this could change everything. This is education for sustainability that doesn’t necessarily mention sustainability – and it can be transformative for learners.

The opportunities to educate for sustainability, when we define it in this broader way, are everywhere. Indeed, an English class reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ or ‘Lord of the Flies’, a French GCSE set studying the importance of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’, or a Drama club putting on ‘Death of a Salesman’ are all examples of education for sustainability.

So, is that DfE page useful? Unintentionally, yes… It is tremendous stimulus material for students and teachers wishing to identify and debate the values, worldviews, and beliefs the UK Government is committed to – and trying to commit the UK’s children and young people to. They include an overreliance on technological solutions, a deep attachment to economics as the solution to everything, a proudly UK-centric view of the world and Britain’s role within it, a belief in the healing power of nature connectedness, and values of freedom, opportunity, status, rugged individualism, and competition. You’ll have your own views on how ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ it is to be committed to each of these – and the many other values, beliefs, and worldviews the strategy subtly reinforces. Should our children and young people be committed to them too? That’s what I am left pondering – maybe we should ask them.

Is the DfE’s strategy useful? No, not yet: it is a long way away from paradigm-shifting territory. The strategy doesn’t, for instance, encourage the sort of education set out above, but… This is the beginning of a process, not the end and there are opportunities that need to be seized. The strategy contains many promises and next steps; a vital one is the framework for ‘evaluating the impacts of the actions set out within the strategy’. That framework will have to be useful. But if it is going to be, there is an urgent need for greater transparency about the baselines we are starting from, and far more radical ambition about where we need to go – and how we’re going to get there. Over the next few months, everyone who cares about climate change and sustainability needs to push for this. A framework with weak and/or inappropriate targets would be a disaster – and worse than having no DfE strategy and framework at all.  

 

Do we need to report a problem? Well, the strategy is not unproblematic. It is littered with questionable and unsubstantiated claims. There are several glaring examples of greenwash. There is too much emphasis on the operations and fabric of the buildings, and not enough on the learning that needs to happen inside them. The arts and humanities have been all but ignored. And there is a very real danger of corporate capture of this most important of agendas.  

 

All is not lost, however. The door to ‘mandatory reporting’ on how schools are progressing on climate change and sustainability remains open – it needs knocking down. The National Education Nature Park idea has a lot of learning and sustainability potential. If it is well designed and properly resourced, it could have a transformative impact. The Climate Leaders Award, if reframed and grounded in cooperative, citizen, and creative values, could trigger a landslide of student-led project-based learning. And taking seriously the need to tackle air pollution and adapt the education estate to the climate impacts that are coming is very welcome.  

Global Action Plan is designing and delivering education for sustainability projects and programmes that speak to this broadened definition of what it can, and maybe needs to, be. Two of our current projects, the Schools Good Life Charter and the Dirt is Good project, are examples of what is possible. Others are doing similar, inspirational work and we know that there is potential for a lot more. DfE will, we hope, enable it because ultimately all education needs to be education for sustainability.  

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