Manifesto 2024

Three policies to put sustainability at the heart of education

Leading our children and communities to the sustainable future all our futures rely on should not be left to schools and trusts on their own

Leading our children and communities to the sustainable future all our futures rely on should not be left to schools and trusts on their own

14 Jun 2024, 5:00

As leaders of multi-million pound organisations whose sole focus is to help shape the futures of the tens of thousands of children and young people we each serve, it’s right that periodically we pause and ask ourselves “what should I do, and – more to the point – what must I do?”

The same should apply for any new government, and any new Secretary of State for Education.

The answers to these questions have effectively set our strategic plan for the next five years. Within it are ambitious and strategic goals that demand that we move the needle on a number of challenges.

Alongside digital transformation and social justice, sustainability is central to our school improvement work. Not an add-on. Not an AOB on a board committee agenda. It is at the heart of our work over the coming years.

To achieve this, we have to ensure everything we do is rooted in evidence and effective practice. Several fundamental principles guide us:

Evidence informed actions

We all know countless cases of educators introducing policies without any certainty of their impact. We only act if we have evidence to back it.

Embedded into the culture

Sustainability should not rely solely on well-meaning or interested teachers – or the occasional awareness day. Environmental sustainability should be an entitlement for all children and therefore must be part of the curriculum and the way we work.

Staff are experts

Unless all staff (not just teachers) have a good understanding of what makes a difference, we risk inconsistent, inaccurate and ineffective approaches. Staff development in subject-specific knowledge and pedagogy is vital.

Measuring the impact

To understand the difference our collective focus on environmental sustainability is making, we are developing a dashboard of core measures that will tell us how our teachers, children, wider school communities and local environments are responding.

These same principles would serve any incoming Secretary of State and their team well. Here are three polices they should then implement:

1. Accountability for climate action

The DfE’s Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy is welcome. It’s right, as part of this, that every school must have a climate action plan and a sustainability leader. But this is only the groundwork. There is a great deal to achieve, and quickly.

Every year, around 3,000 REAch2 children transition from primary to secondary. Our goal is to ensure each cohort departs as emerging environmental sustainability ambassadors.

We need our next secretary of state to set themselves that same goal for all children. If we can hold ourselves accountable through dashboards, there’s no reason sustainability can’t be part of a broadened vision of school accountability.

We will then be able to see the impact of their work too.

2. A national curriculum for sustainability

If we are going to reach net-zero by 2050, it will be the children we are teaching today who are making the decisions. We need a curriculum that reflects this; one optional GCSE in Natural History won’t cut it.

With the support of The Natural History Museum and Climate Adapted Pathways for Education (CAPE), we have begun to develop our own. But expecting every school and trust to do this is not an efficient way to go about this.

So we need a national commission to review the curriculum – not to reform it but to make opportunities to learn about sustainability explicit, whether that’s the meaning of greenhouse gas emissions or naming species of local trees.

3. A national mission to make it happen

But that would still leave too much for schools and trusts to do. Thankfully, there is plenty of support to be leveraged from subject associations and others too.  Both The Royal Geographical Society and The Economist, for example, have provided us with ready-made resources to support our primary geography curriculum

A national mission to make education sustainable could galvanise all that latent expertise to develop a range of age-related expectations, leaving schools and trusts to tailor that body of knowledge and skills for their communities.  

However they go about it, one thing is certain: Sustainability is too important to remain an AOB for the next incumbents at the DfE.

This article is part of a series of sector-led policies in the run-up to the next general election. Read all the others here

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