Embracing the Education for Sustainable Development

23rd September 2021

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Charlotte Bonner

Given the proper investment and resources, the UK’s further education system can play a significant role in improving sustainability, argues Charlotte Bonner

The Education and Training Foundation recently surveyed more than 800 teachers, trainers and leaders from the further education (FE) sector about their experiences of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Our findings (bit.ly/FE_SustDevelop) starkly highlighted what the sector needs in order to progress in this area, and provided insights that could help many to plan their own ESD approaches.

The FE sector’s influence

Each year, the FE and training sector provides vocational, technical, academic and recreational courses to millions of learners from all walks of life. Some learn with a college, others an independent training organisation, a local authority adult and community learning service or another provider type.

FE is well placed to help bring about the transition and transformation our society needs: its 100,000-plus staff work in every town and city in the UK. Within these communities, FE has a critical role to play in improving the appeal, accessibility and relevance of careers in the climate change and sustainability field.

FE helps provide the workforce for many of the industries, employers and sectors that will play a critical role in the achievement of sustainable development, such as construction, manufacture, agriculture, catering and motoring. And we’re not just talking about young learners: reskilling and upskilling the existing workforce will be required if we’re to meet our national and global sustainability goals, and the FE sector is well placed to assist.

Large-scale systemic changes will be needed to combat the climate crisis, and individual engagement with the climate change agenda is going to make those systemic changes more likely. The vast FE sector could enable greater reach and buy-in to pro-sustainable behaviour change, community action and consumer choice.

Improving ESD provision

The FE and training sector certainly doesn’t lack ambition. Most respondents (85%) agreed that that it has a valuable role to play in the achievement of sustainability goals, and nearly all (94%) believed all UK learners should be taught about sustainability issues. As with many sectors, there’s lots to celebrate, and I could list multiple examples of good practice from practitioners, providers and leaders across the sector.

However, we also found that more than 70% of survey participants felt there should be more teaching about a range of subjects relating to ESD, while 68% felt the system does not adequately educate learners on sustainability issues. Our results also highlighted the significant investment, training and resources needed for FE to realise its potential in this area: 74% of teaching staff felt they hadn’t had adequate training to embed sustainability in their work, while only 35% felt that the curriculum they teach supported ESD delivery, and 24% didn’t know what their organisation’s approach to sustainability was.

The way forward is clear. We need top-down changes in educators’ continuing professional development, initial teacher education, funding, regulation and curriculum standards, alongside middle-out changes wherein FE and training providers develop organisational and regional sustainability practice. Bottom-up enthusiasm is already there: our research shows that the FE workforce is eager to embrace ESD, and there is significant demand from learners, too.

IEMA members can also contribute. Join an apprenticeship standard trailblazer group to ensure those training to be part of your sector develop sustainability attributes as part of their learning; provide industrial placements for FE educators so they retain up-to-date knowledge; and invite FE providers into your local sustainability networks.

Charlotte Bonner is national head of ESD at the Education and Training Foundation.

Image credit | iStock

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