Environmental sustainability: Actions secondary schools can take

Written by: Dr Lynda Dunlop & Dr Elizabeth Rushton | Published:
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The views of young people have helped to create a new manifesto for environmental sustainability in secondary education. Dr Elizabeth Rushton and Dr Lynda Dunlop explain

Back in the 1930s, a satirist depicted a Palaeolithic society facing extinction because of its resistance to changing its core curriculum of fish‐grabbing, horse‐clubbing, and tiger‐scaring – skills that had been rendered useless by climate change caused by an approaching ice age.

Today, as the COP26 summit in Glasgow has highlighted, we face a similar problem – our education systems are failing humanity in the context of climate change.

As the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE, 2012) has observed: “Education often contributes to unsustainable living. This can happen through a lack of opportunity for learners to question their own lifestyles and the systems and structures that promote those lifestyles. It also happens through reproducing unsustainable models and practices.

Education systems can be part of the problem, but they also have a role to play in identifying and prioritising measures needed to deal with the causes and consequences of, and responses to, the climate crisis.

Last week, education secretary Nadim Zahawi announced at COP26 that there would be a new model science curriculum and award scheme to enrich the teaching of climate change and to empower young people (DfE, 2021).

While we welcome this, our recent work on this topic points to a need for sustainability to infuse every subject in a holistic way, rather than being restricted to science or geography.

We also need teachers and young people to be more involved in the process and to make sure that sustainability is valued in accountability regimes. And importantly, we need to ensure teachers and schools have the resources to do this work.

A manifesto for change

We recently brought teachers and young people from diverse backgrounds across the UK together to create a manifesto for education for environmental sustainability in secondary education, and to identify a series of priorities for action.

The SecEd Podcast: For more on how we can reduce carbon emissions and support eco-work in schools, listen to our podcast episode from August 2021, which include a range of ideas, tips and advice from schools involved in the Let’s Go Zero campaign: https://bit.ly/2W6TL4D

The manifesto, which is the result of a research commission funded by the British Educational Research Association and which is available online (BERA, 2021), was drawn up after a series of online workshops with more than 200 young people, teachers and teacher educators.

Our research sessions were designed to ensure that the manifesto included those whose voices have not always been heard – for instance, by working with groups with expertise in inclusion such as the Black Environment Network and teachers who support young people with additional learning needs.

The students in the study said they wanted to be more involved in environmental decision-making, conducting their own research and helping to shape school policies. They wanted to be better informed about how their schools were heated, how contracts were managed and how decisions were made on energy, food, transport and waste. Sustainable choices could be made more convenient through bike storage, the sale of second-hand uniforms and better vegetarian food choices in school canteens, for instance.

With their support we have set out a series of priorities at classroom, school, community and policy levels, enabling those in all parts of the education landscape to participate in much-needed change.

In the classroom

Both teachers and students share a desire for more time for learning about climate change and sustainability, particularly in low-stakes, exploratory contexts which cut across school subjects.

The approaches they propose include class discussions, hosting visiting speakers, using authentic data in STEM subjects, and supporting young people to do their own research – for instance via citizen science projects.

Also important at the classroom level is the use of more sustainable resources and practices, for example re-using where possible, avoiding the production of landfill waste, and using materials with the lowest environmental impacts in teaching.

Actions taken by teachers and pupils have included a second-hand clothes sale to raise funds for an air pollution monitor. Some teachers lead by example by adopting sustainable practices in their lives, for instance by not buying new clothes for a year, and this was also seen as important.

Barriers to change at classroom level include limits on funding, lack of curriculum flexibility, exam pressure, teacher capacity and workload, and availability of appropriate professional development in sustainability.

Across the school

School-level change can only be enacted with the participation of school leaders. With the right leadership, schools can be “petri dishes”for growing environmental sustainability, but they can also be inhibitors.

Teachers and young people want to see sustainability and climate education represented in school leadership and governance teams and included in school curricula. They also want sustainability to be included in decision-making in purchasing, and for better sustainable choices – for example offering affordable, comfortable and safe school buses, good cycle lanes and bike storage, and making second-hand uniforms available.

Sustainability actions should be tracked and rewarded, our participants said, and more attention should be given to greening school environments. Another key role for school leaders relates to supporting teachers’ and students’ climate activism.

Young people want to be better informed about how schools work so that they can engage better: a sustainability committee or an eco-council could inform decisions on energy, food, transport and waste, and could monitor actions such as turning off lights. Making sustainable choices convenient is believed to make sustainable habits easier.

Finally, teachers and young people want leaders to nurture links between the quality of the school environment and mental and physical health by making greater use of the outdoor environment in learning and involving students in greening school spaces, thus leaving a legacy to their school and community.

In the community

Schools are at the heart of their communities and the workshops identified community priorities which included networking, intergenerational education and accreditation for sustainability initiatives.

Teachers and young people wanted to see school buildings used as local hubs for sustainabilitybeyond the school day: ideas included workshops, clubs and courses as well as using schools as meeting places and event spaces.

Our participants wanted to see a no-cost accredited school award focusing on environmental sustainability and valuing individual and collective actions and progressing from acorn (small pupil actions) to sapling (whole school actions), to oak (school and community action) and to forest (multiple networked school and community actions).

In the policy arena

Four key policy priorities were identified by teachers and young people: the need for education policies to value sustainability, a co-ordinated review of curricula, the inclusion of sustainability in accountability regimes such as Ofsted inspections, and the voices of public figures in sustainability to be amplified.

There was broad consensus that the curriculum in each of the four jurisdictions of the UK does not promote learning about sustainability. Perspectives varied on what a curriculum for sustainability would look like and how it should be assessed, so a review was considered important to identify ways to promote and value sustainability regardless of the subjects students were studying.

Sustainability must be recognised in inspections, school development plans and other accountability mechanisms – at the same time as ensuring that schools are funded to make sustainable choices.

Sustainability across schools

The insights brought by our young people and educators extended across different areas of the curriculum and of wider school life – and so in order for change to be lasting, it must do the same.

A recurring idea during our research exercise was the need for work to take place across the generations, recognising the experiences of people and enabling them to participate in political processes which set and manage policy.

Young people of secondary school age and their teachers are often excluded from educational policy-making processes, and our manifesto-making highlighted a desire for greater involvement in decision-making at all levels.

Education for sustainability needs to be focused on action, with attention paid to knowledge and skills that can be used in schools and communities. That action needs to be coordinated – and that will require a policy environment which values sustainability and support from the wider community of experts working in this field.

  • Dr Lynda Dunlop, a senior lecturer in science education at the University of York, and Dr Elizabeth Rushton (@RushtonDr), who specialises in geography and science education at King’s College, London, led the BERA research commission.

Further information & resources

  • BERA: Manifesto for Education for Environmental Sustainability, November 2021: https://bit.ly/3wmAsSE
  • DfE: Education Secretary puts climate change at the heart of education, November 2021: https://bit.ly/31Eks31
  • Peddiwell & Benjamin: The Saber-Tooth Curriculum. McGraw-Hill Education, 2004.
  • United Nations: Learning for the future:Competences in education for sustainable development, 2012: https://bit.ly/3GQPwg8


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