How has Education for Sustainable Development developed and how does it appear in the National Curriculum?

Frances Nichols


The growth of global interdependence is evident in the expansion of technological, political, cultural, economic, and ecological global networks, and there is no reason to believe that this growth will slow down or end soon (Tye 1990). The current and continuously developing state of the world demands an exploration of various scenarios that may occur from the current trend, and a consideration of the implications of these (Hicks 2002). Education has a crucial role to play in enabling society to respond to the process of globalisation (Osler and Starkey 2005), and the various implications globalisation has on environmental, social, cultural and economic issues.

Education, traditionally practiced, can be seen to reflect the inequalities apparent in a capitalist society; designed to produce people ready for the industrial market it functions to fit young people into the existing economy (Hicks and Holden 1995) and can be seen to play a part in reproducing an unsustainable society (Huckle and Sterling 1996). Education prepares young people for the future, promoting awareness and understanding of their society, how it functions, and how they’ll come to contribute to it in certain ways (Osler and Starkey 2005). However, teaching about the future does not prepare students for a future that will look very different to the present; with the growing agreement about the seriousness of various global issues, teaching must encourage an exploration of possible changes that will occur, and what action people will need to take for a more equal and sustainable future (Hicks and Holden 1995).

Internationally, there have been increasing global concerns becoming more and more prominent in the media, policy and non-government initiatives. Society’s awareness of these particular global issues is largely dependent on the coverage in the media (Hicks and Townley 1982); one issue that is consistently focused on is that of the environment and sustainability; climate change has been identified as the greatest threat facing humankind (Hicks and Holden 2007). Although it’s not the only issue brought about by the increasing interdependence of the global economy, the environment and issues of sustainability are prominent in political and public discussions, and the need for change has had various implications for formal and informal education. Numerous world conferences have addressed issues of environment and development, and a number of international agencies have been established to tackle these particular issues (Huckle and Sterling 1996).

The government, and non-government organisations, that are concerned with global issues and sustainability consider education to be the main resource available to promote a transition towards sustainable development (Huckle & Sterling 1996). This essay will describe the political developments around the environment and sustainability, and subsequent political agendas and establishment of non-government organisations (NGO’s). There will then be a consideration of the progression of sustainable development in education with reference to the political agendas, and their influence on the current education policy and the implementation of it.

Political developments

NGO’s concerned with global affairs, economic, social and environmental issues can seem relatively limited in person power, financial capacity and social influence, but many have been very effective in targeting their resources to achieve significant change in systems that do have power (Huckle and Sterling 1996). One of the first NGOs that focused primarily on environmental issues was the Club of Rome. In 1968 a small group of professionals from various fields met to discuss the risks of unlimited resource consumption in an interdependent world and the issues of short- term thinking (Club of Rome 2009). In its first report ‘The Limits to growth’ various scenarios were explored and the choices available to society to ‘reconcile sustainable progress within environmental constraints’ (Club of Rome 2009).

NGO’s fill a variety of roles from basic research to the collection and distribution of information, to inducing collective action in many forms. They take influence where market and state institutions appear unable to provide solutions to societal problems (Hatzius 1996). Despite NGOs having a considerable skill in dealing with national and international issues it is with the governments that the power of change ultimately resides.

In 1972 the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment considered:

“...the need for a common outlook and for common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment...”

                                                                                                                (UNEP, Date Unknown b: online)

The declarations from which were the basis for 26 principles, and lead to the establishment of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) (UNEP, date unknown b). Existing today and working with Clean up the World (CUW), UNEP ‘encourages sustainable development through sound environmental practices’ (CUW, date unknown: online).

During the 1980s UNEP joined with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to commission the World Conservation Strategy (WCS) which was prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the aim of which was outlined as being ‘to help advance the achievement of sustainable development through the conservation of living resources’ (IUCN 1980)  and hoped to focus the approach to human resource conservation, and guide policy makers as to the most effective way of achieving certain aims (Huckle and Sterling 1996). Also, there was the commissioning of the Brandt Report, a broad based analysis of the state of the world, with particular emphasis on the worlds economic development and its failings in ensuring social and economic equality for humanity (STWR, date unknown).

The UN Commission on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1983 echoed concerns about the increasing deterioration of the environment and natural resources, and the implications of that deterioration on economic and social development. It was reported that sustainable development should be the guiding factor of the UN, governments, institutions and organisations and that it was of major importance that there should be a reorientation of national and international policies towards sustainable development (DESA 1999) reflected in its resolution 38/161.

The Brundtland commission for sustainable development followed in 1987 and defined sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations’ (Venkataraman 2009: 1). Also known as ‘Our Common Future’ the report raised awareness of the increasing importance of making progress in economic development whilst ensuring the conservation of the worlds natural resources and the environment (Atmosphere, Climate and Environment Information Programme 2002).

The challenge of sustainable development was introduced on a more global political agenda at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992. Also called the Earth Summit, the conference in Rio de Janeiro convened to examine the issues raised by the Brundtland commission (Holmberg et al 1991, cited in Huckle and Sterling 1996). The Earth Summit concluded that nothing less than a transformation in our values and behaviours would bring about the necessary changes to ensure a sustainable future for generations to come (UN 1997) and called for an embrace of our common rights and duties to the earth’s natural resources (Huckle and Sterling 1996). It lead to the adoption of Agenda 21, a blueprint for action to achieve sustainability worldwide, and a focus on the crucial role of education in promoting a more sustainable form of global development in all countries (Hicks and Holden 1995).

Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, is a plan of action that has been adopted globally, nationally and locally by organisations and governments of the United Nations. The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created at the end of 1992 to ‘ensure effective follow up of UNCED’ and to report on the implementation at a local, national, regional and international level (DESA Date unknown). The UK strategy of Agenda 21 was published in 1994 and proposed an independent panel of experts to advise on policy and to coordinate local government, business and other interests, and a citizens’ environment initiative (Huckle and Sterling 1996). It was agreed by the Earth Summit conference that the best starting point towards sustainable development was at the local level (LA21 Date unknown). LA21 is the local version of Agenda 21, which calls councils to prepare their own agenda based on the action and concerns of the community with the hope that with participation at a local level a positive change will be made to improve quality of life at a national and global level (LA21 date unknown). Sustainable development has to be at the centre of the strategies developed and implemented by all areas of society (LA21 Date unknown) and has the potential to educate and empower people as agents of sustainable development (Huckle and Sterling 1996).

Despite this being a significant move to promoting sustainable development internationally, nationally and locally, many thought that the issues that prompted the summit in the first place were not being dealt with by the government; neither the issues themselves nor the manifestations of them in the UK (Jacobs 1998). In response to this argument 30 independently constituted UK NGOs joined in a coalition in 1996 called the ‘Real World Coalition’. The aim of which was to highlight the link of the organisations concerned with varying issues such as environmental sustainability, eradication of poverty and social justice, and the fact that it was no longer enough to tackle one issue in isolation from the wider global context (Jacobs 1998).

Despite criticisms, the agendas from the 1992 Earth Summit were further endorsed by the Earth Summit in 2002, continuing to focus on education as essential to integrate environment and development issues into society; out of this Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) emerged (Hicks and Holden 2007).

From the 2002 Earth Summit the United Nations adopted resolution 57/245 and declared the period 2005 to 2014 as the decade of ESD (Little and Green 2009). UNESCO was requested to take leadership over the decade of ESD (DESD), and develop an implementation plan for it. The implementation plan document analyses the evolving nature of sustainable development; there are three core dimensions: environment, economy and society (King 2008). It aims to promote education as a basis for a more sustainable society, and to integrate sustainable development into education at all levels and all areas of life (Sterling and Scott 2008); furthermore, it offers a focal point on a global scale, providing hope that environmental ideas will be effectively integrated with other education disciplines ensuring positive implications (Los 2008).

In 1999 the sustainable strategy for the UK, ‘One Future Different Paths’ published ‘Quality of Life Counts’ which included indicators for a strategy of sustainable development, and provided a base line from which assessments of progress might be measured (Quality of Life Counts 2004). An account of the developments of this strategy is taken in the 2005 UK strategy ‘Securing the Future’. The domestic and international developments, as well as the changes in the structure of the UK government, the delivery of sustainable development education at a regional level, and also the new relationship between government and local education authorities are discussed in the publication in terms of a further framework of national common goals (DEFRA 2005).

In 2006 Lord Stern, Head of the Government Economic Service and former World Bank Chief Economist, led a report into the assessment of the nature of the economic challenges of climate change and how they can be met nationally and globally (OCC 2007). The report assessed a wide range of evidence of the impacts of climate change on the economy, and considered the costs and risks from different perspectives. The conclusions drawn from the evidence were centered around the benefits of strong and early action outweighing the economic costs of not acting, and that climate change is a serious global issue and requires urgent global action (HM Treasury 2006).

The conclusions are reflected in the GEO4 Global Environmental Outlook Report (UNEP 2007), that also states that protecting the global environment is beyond the capacity of individual countries, and that only coordinated international efforts will be sufficient to deal with climate change and issues of environmental sustainability (UNEP 2007). The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) was initiated at the request of UNEP to keep the global environment under review; reports, analysis of environmental change, causes, impacts, and policy responses provide information for decision-making and raise awareness on environmental issues, also providing options for action (UNEP Date Unknown a). GEO 4 is the fourth report to have been published since the initiation in 1995.

The fourth assessment report (AR4) on climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) was also published in 2007 (IPCC 2007). The IPCC was set up by the World Meteorological Organisation and UNEP to provide an authoritative international statement of scientific understanding of climate change (Parry et al 2007). It describes the progress in human and natural influences on climate change, observed climate change, climate processes, and estimates of projected future climate change (Parry et al 2007).

It is clear through these developments that the increasingly urgent need for global action to combat the effects of climate change and human activity on the natural environment is being taken more and more seriously by the international community, governments, NGO’s and local authorities. However,  Sterling and Scott (2008) argue that support for ESD by central government is more passive than active, and that its not being driven coherently or energetically enough, though there are various initiatives being implemented and enforced by the government at all levels of society. The next section will consider those developed, and being implemented in and through the education system, and how far they are seen to represent hope for change towards sustainability.

Educational Developments

In 2002 the United Nations declared that 2005-2014 would be the ‘Decade of Education for Sustainable Development’; with the aim to:

                “...integrate the values inherent in sustainable development into all aspects of learning to encourage changes in behaviour that allow for a more sustainable and just society for all.”

                                                                                                                                                (UNESCO 2005: Online)

Early interests in global matters started emerging in the 1920’s through the establishment of the World Education Fellowship and its journal ‘The New Era’, and also the Council for Education in World Citizenship set up by educators in the late 1930’s (Heater 1980, cited in Hicks and Holden 2007).

The One World Trust was established in 1951 by a group of Parliamentarians, and soon after its establishment became a separate charity to promote research and to educate the public on global developments and policy (One World Trust 2008). Along with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on World Government (PGWG) in 1959 the One World Trust formed an Education Advisory Committee to work on the objective of including a dual focus in education- national as well as global (One World Trust 2008).

From the 1960’s onwards a growing number of new educational movements emerged internationally. Various issue based perspectives all developed in different areas of expertise came under headings such as Global Education, Environmental Education, Development Education, Peace Education and Futures Education (Hicks and Holden 2007).

In 1973 the One World Trust set up the ‘World Studies Project’ to look at issues of world order; it was funded by the Department for Education and Science, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Ministry of Overseas Development (Fisher and Hicks 1985). Robin Richardson directed the running of conferences attended mainly by secondary school teachers, teachers in teacher training, and members of NGO’s; and it was hugely influential in forming the basis for a global element in education (Hicks and Holden 2007). Richardson provided the first conceptual map of world society including issues such as poverty, oppression, conflict and environment.

The schools council and the Rowntree project legitimised the field of global education further with World Studies 8-13 (Fisher and Hicks 1985). The World studies 8-13 project worked with pupils in the middle years of schooling and involved in-service work with 50 LEAs (Hicks 2003). The project, which defined World Studies as promoting the ‘knowledge, attitudes and skills which are needed for living responsibly in a multi-cultural society and an interdependent world’ was based on Richardson’s work and was based around 5 themes: ourselves and others, rich and poor, peace and conflict, our environment, and the world tomorrow (Hicks 2003).

Education for sustainable development was first outlined in chapter 36 of agenda 21 of the 1992 Earth Summit, and from environmental and developmental education ideas it as developed since (ESD: Date unknown). The discussion around how schools would actively promote the knowledge and skills to become ‘active citizens’ was focused on in the 1998 Sustainable Development Education Panel (SDEP), whose work was recognised in the 2000 revision of the national curriculum (ESD: Date unknown). Learning to Last, the governments long term aim for ESD was outlined by SDEP in 2003 and covered all areas of education in terms of objectives to ensure the professional capacity and adequate resources to allow skills and aptitudes to be developed for all citizens to engage in the achievement of sustainability (ESD Date unknown).

Using the objectives outlined, the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) published ‘Taking the First Step Forward: Towards an Education for Sustainable Development’; which summarised findings from inspections of a number of schools, focusing on ESD, and highlighted examples of good practice found in their reports in 2002-2003 (ESD Date unknown).

The Sustainable Development Commission, the government’s independent advisory body on sustainable development, published the extension of Every Child Matters, Every Child’s Future Matters, in 2007. It discusses the national and international research on children’s wellbeing and the environment as well as how sustainability can enhance the existing Every Child Matters initiative and highlights the specific areas for action as well as proposals for government, local authorities and other partners involved in children’s services (Sustainable Development Commission: Date unknown).

These developments link in to those outlined as political developments, but can be seen to be very much reflecting the international agendas with regards to the environment and education. There have been many other perspectives towards a global element in education, such as ‘A Futures Perspective’, exploring temporal dimensions of how global issues are effecting, and are effected by, the past, present and future, encouraging children to think more creatively and critically about the future (Hicks 2003); and ‘Development Education’ supporting teachers and other educators who wish to explore the nature of global issues (Hicks and Holden 2007).

Development education was a notion developed on from the 60’s, which progressed through environmental conservation in the 60s and 70s,to national and global issues on the 70’s to 80’s, to issues of sustainability in the 90s and today (Hicks and Holden 2007). By considering how this focus is reflected in the current national curriculum it is possible to see whether these developments have had an effect on the practice and instruction in schools, and to what extent.

Education for Sustainable Development

Education for Sustainable development aims to redirect education so that it presents sustainable development as a means to modify individual and societal lifestyles towards protecting the environment and achieving social equity (Venkatamaran 2009). It is an approach to learning which aims to build global citizenship through the consideration of five global concepts: interdependence, images and perceptions, social justice, conflict and conflict resolution, change and the future (Fountain 1995).

The characteristics and interrelated primary requirements of ESD are that it has to be delivered so that it is: contextual, innovative and constructive, focused and infusive, holistic, integrative, process oriented and empowering, critical, balanced, systematic and connective, ethical, purposive, inclusive and lifelong (Huckle and Sterling 1996). It aims to prepare individuals, groups, communities and governments to live and act sustainably, and to give them an understanding of the social, economic and environmental issues involved (Hicks and Holden 2007). To this end it calls for a change in education with the purpose of ensuring a sustainable future; four of the thrusts of ESD, therefore are: improving access to quality education, reorienting existing education programs, developing public understanding and awareness, and providing training (Little and Green 2008).


Despite these outlines in the national curriculum there are many who consider ESD as being only passively supported by local governments, and as not being driven with the clarity nor energy needed for the promotion and maintenance of any real change (Sterling and Scot 2008).

Cutting and Cook (2009) consider the reports on the progress of ESD to be at risk of becoming uncritical success stories that are neither reviewed nor evaluated, obscuring the failure to provide genuine insights or solutions to environmental problems. This could be seen to be an issue of effective assessment. Venkataraman (2009) suggests that the lack of consistent assessment of environmental education practices and programmes inhibit effective collaboration between educational researchers to gather authentic assessments to inform curricular reform and define the best practices. Furthermore, with the completion of the OFSTED report of ESD came questions about whether ESD can be effectively assessed (Hicks and Holden 2007); in a critique of the current national curriculum in terms of its outlines for ESD, Chatzifotiou (2009) comments that there are a lack of attainment targets for ESD, and perhaps this can be put down to the difficulty in defining how much behaviour has been effected.

It is a change in behaviour that ESD aims to promote and it is widely accepted that education is vital to a transition to sustainable lifestyles and practices (Venkatamaran 2009), however, it also seems widely accepted that in order to achieve this aim, and fulfil its potential as an agent of change towards a more sustainable society, education needs to be a subject of change itself (Huckle and Sterling 1996, Los 2008, Venkataraman 2009, Hicks and Holden 1995) instead of ESD being added to ‘an already crowded curriculum’ (Venkataraman 2009).

Chatzifotiou (2009) considers this to be the exact case in national curriculum on ESD. There are two distinct subject areas: the statutory guidelines on the subjects that teachers are legally bound to deliver by law; and the non statutory subjects that teachers can teach if they have the time and resources to do so. The non-statutory subjects include citizenship, PSHE and ESD.

An investigation of how these subjects appear in the national curriculum can be seen to highlight the implicit encouragement that the National Curriculum gives for traditional school subjects, more than spiritual, cultural, social and moral (Chatzifotiou 2009). The statutory subjects are interested in promoting information based knowledge and skills, whereas the non-statutory subject are more values based (Chatzifotiou 2009), this in itself suggests where the national curriculum places the value of education.

Chatzifotiou (2009) suggests that the optional nature of these value based subjects reduces the importance of them and teachers are less inclined to involve an element of these subjects in their lessons. Rather than promoting the complementary nature and inter-relationships of the statutory and non-statutory subjects, the difference in focus of the guidelines relating to these subjects creates a situation where they are not seen as complementary with each other (Chatzifotiou 2009).

Despite the drive for ESD in political rhetoric and the global pressure to educate people on the increasing need for action with regards to environmental issues, especially outlined in DESD, ESD is presented very briefly in the National Curriculum as an extra contribution to the development of students in order for them to perform in society in later life. This is also reflected in the coverage or space that the non-statutory subjects get in, not only the curriculum in practice, but also in the guidelines as they appear on paper. The predominance of space is given to statutory subjects, with detailed and prescriptive teaching requirements, whereas the guidance offered for non-statutory subjects are general and quite abstract (Chatzifotiou 2009).

Despite this, brief outlines are offered as to where the skills of ESD could be taught in relation to the statutory subjects; these references, however, only indicate what subjects have opportunity to include an element of ESD without elaborating on how to implement them. Furthermore, the language when describing ESD expresses desirable aims rather than giving a specific definition of what the terms mean or how to implement them in the subject, instead teachers find themselves with suggestions, general information and no attainment targets (Chatzifotiou 2009).

In another comment on the national curriculum reforms with regards to ESD Sauve et al (2005) suggests that it tends to focus on providing students with the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in the global market and benefit from economic globalisation, without supporting critical enquiry into the cases and consequences of globalisation on the environment. This is further exemplified by the analysis of the language in various recent ESD documents, within which the word ‘environment’ rarely appears, and issues of economic and social dimensions of sustainable development are expressed as more important in the curriculum (Sauve et al 2005).

Hicks and Holden (2007) comment that global issues have been on the educational agenda for the last thirty years, and that during this time there have been numerous educators, internationally, that have responded to global issues and contributed their professional expertise to the development of teaching and learning in this area. Different perspectives are not mutually exclusive, and should be used to further understanding of good practices in ESD (Hicks and Townley 1982).

Good practice needs to incorporate inter-disciplinary, the hidden or informal curriculum, and the management of school resources (Hicks and Holden 2007). Although the national curriculum on ESD can be viewed as somewhat deficit, there are resources that have come out of such perspectives and expertise to aid educators in an incorporation of ESD in different disciplines, different modes of instruction, and the management of resources.

Pike and Selby developed a map of the field ‘global education’; based around four dimensions, special, temporal, issues and human potential, they developed innovative materials for teachers and ran regional and national in service courses (Hicks 2003). Their book ‘Global teacher, Global Learner’ arose out of the Worlds Studies Teacher Training Project that ran from 1982 to 1985, it provides a detailed description of the four dimensions and provides ideas for teaching and learning about them, and surrounding issues (Pike and Selby 1988). A further example of a model of ESD is that developed by Steve Pratchett in 1984, and revised in 2004 and 2006. He proposes a curriculum model to underpin ESD and uses real cases to exemplify the uses (Pratchett 2008).

In addition, Sterling (2001) offers a review of the meaning of sustainable education, and provides frameworks relating to the ecological design of education that might help those working for change towards sustainability. When participating in WWF-UK in-service training programmes Sterling comments that it is possible to see real change, and a revitalisation of enthusiasm; he considers the gap between what education should be like, and what actually happens to best be closed by a developing of a model of an aspired-to system of sustainable education.

Further teaching resources for all stages of education are available from a wide variety of NGOs. Lesson plans, classroom activities and online resources can be accessed and referred to for guidance and inspiration for the inclusion of ESD in the classroom. The DCSF website (DCSF Date unknown) offers resources for Local Education Authorities, Governors, students, communities and teachers. The teaching resources are based on the Sustainable Schools National Framework doorways and offer a number of different approaches to helping pupils understand the main issues of sustainable development. Other local and national initiatives from local organisations to global ones, and the relative resources developed through these movements, are available from Teachernet who provide an A to Z listing for easy access to the best practices and schemes for ESD.


It is clear from an outline of the political and educational developments that have led to an inclusion of global issues, specifically sustainable development, in the national curriculum that there is a recognition of the importance of education in the drive to promote sustainable development in the international society. However, as it has been seen, many believe that despite these intentions, the national curriculum continues to fail to include ESD effectively enough to promote real life changes towards sustainability, locally, nationally and globally.

The structure of the national curriculum can be seen to contradict what it has professed to do in its reform publication. The language used to introduce ESD is confusing, the space it takes up in the curriculum does  not reflect the importance it is claimed to have,  and the lack of attainment targets leads to a lack of due attention. There seems to be an ‘imperfect match’ between what the guidelines of the national curriculum claim to promote and what they actually allow teachers to deliver in the classroom (Chatzifotiou 2009).

This is not the only picture that can be painted, however, there are many frameworks, initiatives, resources and training packages that are directed at teachers including a global element, with a focus of ESD, in schools. Some of the examples above show that there are positive movements towards resources for teachers to encourage the inclusion of ESD in their classrooms, and internationally, it has been reported, there are positive movements in education towards the goals and aims expressed in political and educational policy (Los 2008).

However, through the investigation of the developments globally, and then a focus on how they impact on education in this country, it seems that it may not be enough. The severity of the environmental crisis as it is reported does not seem to be reflected in the type of action that is being taken in relation to education and the national curriculum. If the concern is as urgent as it is suggested, and education really is as significant in this change as many believe it is (Hicks 2002, Huckle and Sterling 1996, Hicks and Holden 2007) then the government needs to take more drastic action. ESD needs to be better defined to allow for precise research and assessment; all levels of education and society have a vital role to play if real sustainability is to become meaningful and mainstream in order to cause real change.

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[I have been contacted by a reader of this excellent piece of work who suggested adding some additional resources:

Simple Ways to Protect Our Earth: Kids’ Edition

Energy Conservation for Kids

Energy Savers Guide: Tips on Saving Money and Energy at Home

Kids Guide to Home Energy Saving

Protecting & Restoring Forests

A Guide to Becoming A Tree Hugger

Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Guide to Composting at Home

Electricity & Its Impacts

Going Green: Eco-Friendly Property Upgrades

Green Schools Leadership Center

AND THERE'S MORE, this time from students at South Salem Elementary School in Georgia via their teacher Katie Stevens:

AND NOW more home improvement tips:

Dave Harris]