Something to sustain us all

Ecologically-aware 'sustainability' is to be FE's new mantra.

Joe Clancy reports.

Sustainable development is the latest buzz-phrase emanating from the corridors of Whitehall. And it will soon be on the lips of every manager in every college in the country. Under proposals put forward in December, "sustainability" will have to be stitched into the fabric of further education.

It is serious stuff. Education for sustainable development (ESD) is expected to be included in every curriculum area.

It will affect how staff and students travel to college, what food and drink they consume on campus and what materials are used in classrooms, down to who switches the lights off at night.

To those not familiar with the phrase, sustainable development is the term which embraces the now outdated headings of conservation, environmental protection and ecology.

The Learning and Skills Development Agency says ESD is "a process of learning how to make decisions that consider the long-term future of the economy, ecology and equity of all communities".

There is now widespread concern that the FE sector is lagging behind in this area.

The LSDA says there is little evidence that FE and training organisations have made significant inroads with ESD.

It adds that they need to move fast to catch up with the private sector, where eco-friendly and socially responsible practices are becoming embedded in business practice in a more structured way.

That is why the Learning and Skills Council, the funding body for colleges, launched its consultation document, From Here To Sustainability. Colleges are invited to submit their responses by March 31.

It sets out to "make it clear how the post-16 education and training sector, and the LSC itself, will promote and embed SD skills and manage resources in ways that encourage sustainability".

The LSC is recommending that every college appoints sustainable development "champions" to ensure it is incorporated into every aspect of college life.

Somerset college of arts and technology, in Taunton, has 35 sustainability champions.

Jo Matthews, vice-principal and director of its sustainability programme, said it began when the college applied to become a Centre for Vocational Excellence in construction three years ago.

"When we put in our bid we decided we were going to develop an expertise in sustainable construction, using materials that cause least damage to the environment," she explained.

"We then found that we were good at teaching people how to design and build sustainable buildings, but we were not living in a sustainable way ourselves."

The college drew up an action plan, part of which stated that every division and service would appoint three sustainability champions with responsibility for monitoring energy-saving and recycling practices.

She said: "Our students learn about the impact the materials they use have on the environment. For example, our fashion and textiles department looked at the dyes they used.

"They examined where they came from, how they were produced, and the conditions of the workers that produced them.

"It is about being aware of globalisation issues such as human rights, paying a fair price for goods, not exploiting people, and how our lives have a huge impact on others elsewhere in the world.

"We aim to influence everybody we deal with on their understanding of the impact they have on communities."

She said it influenced the company which provides catering in the college, persuading it to use local produce where possible rather than food from a central distribution point. The college has a fair trade cafe and is beginning to replace fizzy pop with organic and locally-produced drinks in its vending machines.

It has set itself a target of auditing everything it buys in sustainable development terms within three years.

The college is about to start work on the highlight of its ESD programme, the Genesis Project. This will be a single-storey centre comprising several "pavilions" built from straw, timber, earth and clay along with a water pavilion. The pavilions will contain seminar rooms and lecture theatres with exhibition space promoting the latest in sustainable technology, along with a construction area where visitors can see practical demonstrations of sustainable construction techniques.

"We started from a low base and we recognise we have to change gradually," said Jo Matthews. "ESD has to be a senior management-driven, integral part of the business plan and the way the business operates.

"Just appointing a couple of staff to take it on as a project is not going to work. It has to be part of the thinking and culture of the way the college operates."

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