In 2014 the UN Decade for Education for Sustainable Development drew to a close and Scotland was recognised by UNESCO as a world leader in Learning for Sustainability in schools. With the help of Natural Change, the country had made a fundamental shift, from an approach that relied largely on the commitment of outstanding individual educators and institutions, to embedding Learning for Sustainability within the cultural structures of the education system.
Now there was a government commitment that:
- all learners should have an entitlement to Learning for Sustainability;
- every practitioner, school and education leader should demonstrate Learning for Sustainability in their practice;
- every school should have a whole school approach to Learning for Sustainability that is robust, demonstrable, evaluated and supported by leadership at all levels;
- school buildings, grounds and policies should support Learning for Sustainability;
- a strategic national approach to Learning for Sustainability should be established.
And the regulatory body for teachers, the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), had recently revised their Standards to include Learning for Sustainability as a core component:
- In order to teach at a Scottish school, a teacher must be registered with the GTCS and, in order to register, a teacher must demonstrate that they meet the Professional Standards. All teachers must maintain their registration by re-accrediting every five years.
- As a result, all teachers are expected to ‘actively embrace and promote the principles and practices of sustainability in all aspects of their work’.
These changes were built on a long history of environmental education, and were the result of political commitment and the tireless effort of many. Natural Change played an important catalytic role.
Looking for a sea change
In 2008 WWF Scotland, part of the world’s largest conservation organisation, looked back on its long-established work on education policy. There was much to be proud of and Scotland had one of the highest participation rates in the Eco Schools programme in the world. But despite many examples of excellence it seemed unlikely that the spread of these initiatives by incremental adoption and emulation would result in the sea change that was needed to address Scotland’s ambitious Climate Change targets.
WWF commissioned the 2010/11 Natural Change Project for Leaders in Education, bringing together 12 people in the education sector for sixteen days of wilderness workshops, meetings and mentoring over eight months. Quite intentionally, the programme set no predetermined outcomes. Instead it created the time and space for participants to come together to share their expert knowledge of the education system, be inspired by new insights into the processes of social change, and build their motivation and deepen their commitment to social justice and ecological sustainability.
From this shared foundation, participants identified leverage points within the education system where they could catalyse personal, social and structural change. They connected with those who already had a long history of working on Learning for Sustainability and together developed collaborative action plans to work on these leverage points. Two key outcomes of this work that helped change education in Scotland were the revision of the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s (GTCS) Professional Standards, and the Scottish Education Minister’s One Planet Schools Working Group.
Groundbreaking work in Europe
One of the Natural Change group, Rosa Murray, then Education Adviser at GTCS, with the support of the GTCS Chief Executive, established a Sustainability Advisory Group to advise the teams revising the Professional Standards. Four of the seven members of the advisory group were participants in the Natural Change project:
- Rosa Murray, Education Adviser, General Teaching Council for Scotland
- Sheila Smith, Continuing Professional Development Officer in Education, West Lothian Council
- Valerie Drew, Lecturer in Professional Education, University of Stirling
- Morag Watson, Senior Education Policy Officer, WWF
Reflecting on the revised Standards, Rosa says:
Our role was to put sustainability at the heart of [the Standards]; not as a subject but as a way of being. Learning for Sustainability permeates as a thread throughout every Standard. It is an attitude and a disposition.
This is now regarded as groundbreaking work in Europe. As far as we know, no other country has given such a profile to Learning for Sustainability within their teaching Standards.
Embedding sustainability in the curriculum and in every school
In parallel with the revision of the Teaching Standards and with the support of the GTCS, the Scottish Education Minister established a One Planet Schools Working Group to make recommendations on how Learning for Sustainability could be embedded in the curriculum, campus, culture and community of every Scottish school in order to:
build the values, attitudes, knowledge, skills and confidence needed to develop practices and take decisions which are compatible with a sustainable and equitable society”.
Two of the Natural Change participants, Rosa Murray and Morag Watson, were members of the working group. The groups report made 31 recommendations, all of which were accepted by the Minister, including five overarching recommendations:
- All learners should have an entitlement to learning for sustainability
- In line with the new GTCS Professional Standards, every practitioner, school and education leader should demonstrate learning for sustainability in their practice
- Every school should have a whole school approach to learning for sustainability that is robust, demonstrable, evaluated and supported by leadership at all levels
- School buildings, grounds and policies should support learning for sustainability
- A strategic national approach to supporting learning for sustainability should be established
Welcoming the report, Dr Alasdair Allan, Minister for Learning, Sciences and Scotland’s Languages, wrote:
I am very appreciative of the careful consideration and hard work of the members of the One Planet Schools Working Group … As we approach the end of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and celebrate the Year of Natural Scotland, it is timely that we take a strategic approach to build on successful practice and help ensure that great learning for sustainability which helps young people develop as responsible global citizens is the experience of all.
Putting inspiration into practice
The Natural Change approach of working outside and exploring challenging issues openly and honestly without fear of judgement, was fundamental to achieving the changes above.
A crucial element of this is being able to empathise deeply with others and see things from their point of view. Valerie saw one of her key roles in this group as helping to develop ‘an aspirational message’ for teachers who are not familiar with the subject of sustainability – to ask:
How do we encourage people to come on board… to want to become involved and see that this is something that they need to be thinking about?
Natural Change deepens and enriches understanding. As Valerie puts it:
[Natural Change] disrupts people’s thinking and challenges them to think about things from different perspectives. Being outside is something that I found has really been quite transformative because it changed the way I was thinking about things.
For Sheila, Natural Change has:
…just expanded my mind. I feel I have got a much bigger understanding of things, of a lot of different areas: the world, the environment, psychology, the way we relate to it…
Rosa’s experiences with Natural Change not only inspired her work for sustainability, they also helped her put her inspiration into practice. She highlights the quality of the relationships she developed with other participants as being central to working in partnership with them in the One Planet Schools Working Group and the GTCS Sustainability Advisory Group:
Because these relationships were there we could work more deeply…The personal relationships I made in NC informed this work and these were shaped by personal transformation.
Director, Natural Change Ltd