Future Citizens; A Whole School Approach to Sustainability

A personal view of the world of ESD
October 16, 2017
Is Economics in ESD?
February 11, 2020

Want to make the most of your activities for the environment, sustainability and global citizenship?  A whole school approach to sustainability is your answer!


I have had numerous discussions with teachers and headteachers in the last 10 years and there is a real concern about: repeating sustainability activities; not making the most of the potential for learning; and not seeing a progression of knowledge, skills and attitudes that they can report on.

Again a common theme is the isolation of the ‘champion’, but our work with schools using an appreciative inquiry method has shown that there is an untapped awareness, and motivation in schools but often not a mandate.

Education for Sustainable Development began in the UK in the late 1980’s with WWF-UK. They began by developing pockets of practice, then adopting a whole school approach. In 2002 this become a framework called Pathways.

The UK Department of Education then adopted this whole school approach in 2004 leading to the UK Sustainable Schools Initiative. A framework with an ethic of ‘care’- care for oneself, care for others (local and global) and care for the environment was developed to be embedded in school improvement plans.

What is a whole school approach to sustainability?

A quick google search will reveal a plethora of approaches to the concept of whole school interventions. They can be categorised into two main approaches:

  1. whole school engagement on a topic or practice
  2. whole school approaches categorised by an ethos/vision and a framework.


The first approach is much more about engagement. For example the RSA are currently promoting a whole school approach to mental health of pupils. By this they mean all staff are trained and responsible for monitoring and helping. It’s not just left up to one counsellor.

But a whole school approach to sustainability is built on an ethos and a self-evaluating framework so that the work can continue to develop.

Why is an ethos and framework essential?

  1. Firstly you will be modelling to the students all the ways in which sustainability can be investigated: campus, curriculum and community and in an integrated way.

You will be modelling how it relates to all our knowledge and how the world works – environmentally, economically and socially. There are many opportunities within the current National Curriculum to do this. The original framework used ‘doorways’ to access sustainability thinking e.g. food, water, energy, inclusion, buildings, transport etc.

  1. Secondly, you will be working with a topic that not only motivates students, but also really concerns them.

Many surveys have shown this worry about the future exists within young people and is one of the contributors to declining mental health in our young people.

  1. Thirdly, you will be doing your own action research and learning, which you could be encouraging your students to do as well.

This is important because living and working sustainably is a developing practice, both in terms of our changing environment, changing technology and changes in society. So it is important that students learn this key concept about sustainability.

There is no one way to teach sustainability – and the text book on how to solve all our problems has not yet been written. There are however 17 Global Goals called the UN Sustainable Development Goals – and all governments have signed up to them. We have until 2030!

  1. Fourthly you will be able to move from assemblies about climate change, switching off lights campaigns or campaigns to reduce plastic to genuinely trying to embed actions in the school.

The learning from this will provide an ever changing set of projects year on year that build skills and knowledge for students.

  1. Fifthly, by using a framework you be able to track and report on student achievements from this approach.


  1. And lastly, the evidence shows that schools are more likely to sustain this work if they develop a whole school approach

If you would like to learn more about how to develop this programme for your school,  contact SEEd.

Ann Finlayson


To find out more  go to https://se-ed.co.uk/edu/future-citizens-whole-school-approach-sustainability/

Comments are closed.