What is the future of education for sustainability in the UK?
On 14 November Transition Network was at the launch of a new UK dialogue process to explore the future of education for sustainability in the UK. At the invitation of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC), in collaboration with the Education Dialogue Group, 25 organisations and agencies met at the University of Westminster to explore the educational commitments of Rio+20 and how to put them into action. With participants ranging from school to university-level education and from NGOs to faith-based organisations and bodies such as the NUS and UCU, each was invited to articulate a response to a collaborative discussion paper identifying our responsibilities within the Rio+20 outcome document “The Future we Want”, and to share ideas about individual and collective next steps.
The meeting began with a short address from the Rt Hon David Heath MP, recently-appointed Minister of State for Agriculture and Food at DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). He opened by referring to the Millennium Development Goals, posing the question: “Our ambitions on the environment have not been met. How do we grow our economy and lift people out of poverty without hoovering up resources, while thinking of people below voting age and those yet to be born? While Rio was the start of a process and the Sustainable Development Goals a significant outcome, there is more work to be done”. (The SDGs aim to balance sustainability and development objectives.) As evidence of this government’s commitment to sustainability he pointed to the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron was recently [31 July 2012] appointed to the High-level Panel to advise on the global development agenda beyond 2015, the expiry date for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The Minister also acknowledged that, “The vast majority of our children are rapidly losing touch with the natural world. Connecting young people back to the natural environment is as important as fostering a sense of community and belonging.” He then referred to The Natural Environment White Paper, The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature (published by Defra on 7th June 2011), which outlines the Government’s vision for the natural environment over the next 50 years. He pointed out that Defra are already working with the Sustainable Schools Alliance; the Natural Connections demonstration project in the Plymouth area for learning outside the classroom; the National Trust campaign to get children out of doors and Bio-Blitzes . He asserted that, “We cannot grow our economy without embracing green growth” and acknowledged the need “to engage young people in decisions affecting their lives and the environment”. At the same time, while not being able to speak for the Department of Education, he reminded us that “this government’s philosophy is to let schools manage their own affairs: a slimmed-down version of the curriculum opens up new possibilities”.
In response to the question “Is there a joined-up approach to sustainability in government, especially since the Sustainable Development Commission was disbanded?” David Heath replied that, “The Prime Minister signing up to the High-Level UN-appointed Panel is a step forward. As he is co-chairing this will galvanise all UK government departments”. Announcing this new process back in July, Ban Ki-moon said: “I have asked my High-level Panel to prepare a bold yet practical development vision to present to Member States next year. I look forward to the Panel’s recommendations on a global post-2015 agenda with shared responsibilities for all countries and with the fight against poverty and sustainable development at its core.”
While this new network of stakeholders sees that it has a potential role in opening up communications between the public sector, civil society and government, it is not seeking a consensus in actions that need to be taken. Instead it is focusing on collecting evidence of actions currently underway and processes envisioned as useful. Each organisation will bring its own perspective and strategy to the table in a process of sharing, challenging, encouraging and collaborating. What all participating organisations agree on is the clear need to educate young people for a future that sustains life many generations into the future. What this government has not formulated so far is a clear process by which that can happen.
The new Schools in Transition programme is now in its pilot phase and testing out the model of embedding a school in place (with bio-regional mapping) in community (with asset mapping for resilience) and then taking action outside the walls of the classroom. I was able to tell David Heath about this broad outline at the meeting and he suggested we open up a conversation about how Defra might support this, and how this programme might meet some government goals too. He is particularly interested in the idea of young people becoming stewards of their watersheds. If your local school would like to take part in this evolving pilot, please get in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org