How green is the curriculum?

12th April 1996 at 01:00
John Smyth asks if moves to encourage environmental education are sustainable. Once upon a time there was no problem. When our tribal ancestors hunted and foraged for food their education was a natural process. They would learn to develop their own capacities and survival skills, to be effective members of their tribal group and to understand the environment on which they relied for all their needs. We still rate personal and social competence highly as educational goals but what happened to environmental competence?

As human skills developed the environment was reduced to a seemingly inexhaustible source of wealth, if one had the power and ingenuity to acquire it, and a stage on which to perform. Then problems appeared. Threatening things with catchy names like acid rain, greenhouse gases and ozone holes, which seemed to be our fault, caught the public imagination. Faced with such problems those in authority called on education (of others, by others) to change how people behave. Was environmental competence in demand again?

Scotland has a good record of trying. In 1974, the Inspectorate produced a report entitled Environmental Education that was ahead of almost everybody else, but it was shelved. In 1977, the Scottish Environmental Education Council was formed. By 1989 the picture had changed: a White Paper on the environment, the planned 5-14 programme for schools, new courses in universities to meet student demand, local authority environmental charters, businesses trying to improve their green image, and the approaching Earth Summit in Rio all recognised environmental education. The time was ripe for a strategy.

In 1990, an intersectoral working group was set up by the Secretary of State, two years before the Rio summit called on all countries to take just this kind of action. It submitted its report, Learning for Life, in April 1993. Not until June 1995 did we receive a response. But if anyone was hoping that the report might fade away the answer was plain. In the Secretary of State's own words: "It is now clear that Learning for Life has been adopted willingly by many and the way is now clear to set it firmly as one of the foundation stones of Scottish environmental and educational policy."

So are we now on course? The report recommended a national advisory panel on environmental education. The Secretary of State passed this on to his Advisory Group on Sustainable Development, to be responsible for an Education for Sustainable Development Group (ESDG). The group is now meeting under the wing of the Scottish Office agriculture, environment and fisheries department, and its secretariat has been entrusted to the environmental education council, following another recommendation in the report. Provided that the paths of communication do not become too tortuous this could work.

Most of the Secretary of State's response thereafter was an account of things already going on, such as initiatives by Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Museums Council, and the Learning for Life project set up by a consortium including all the teacher training institutions to build an environmental education module into the BEd course for primary teachers (which now has European Commission funding for extension into Europe).

The ESDG presides, however, over a still fragmented picture, where commitment is variable and objectives sometimes confused. Too much still depends on devoted enthusiasts working beyond the call of duty. Too many organisations, both business and environmental, give education a low priority in spite of what they say about it, and this is revealed when resources run short.

Environment studies are now an identified curricular area in schools and environmental education (not quite the same thing) is a cross-curricular aspect for 5 to 14-year-olds. But implementation is patchy and the ESDG must watch how local authority reorganisation affects support for these developments. In upper secondary, the Higher Still programme offers great opportunities, but will they be taken? As at tertiary level, the traditional disciplinary citadels of formal education keep firm hands on professional and employment qualifications.

The main themes of the report remain to be addressed: visible leadership from those in authority at every level; participation and partnership, not only among those already committed; responsible ownership of environmental issues by those directly affected; information that is reliable, intelligible and local; evaluation of what is being achieved, from a global as well as a local standpoint.

The group's title is education for sustainable development rather than simply for the environment, a change from the broad subject to a projected future state. This is fashionable but can the group define it? In practice, it is much easier to say what is not sustainable than what is. The title is attractive to those who fear curtailment of development by green activism. Sustainability is popular because of its call for equity: at first intergenerational but easily extended to intragenerational, interethnic, intercultural and intergender. So sustainable development is here to stay, with wide support, but the ESDG must work to prevent it becoming meaningless, to be used for whatever purpose suits the user.

Partnerships matter: does the group plan to continue the small workshops on important topics, bringing together people who might otherwise never meet, which were one of the working group's successes? Partnerships challenge independence and many organisations feel they have good reason to protect their own patches. Giving people ownership of their environmental and educational programmes is even more challenging: it means that someone else has to give up ownership. How do we set about that?

Partnerships matter at every level and the top should educate by example. The ESDG's membership represents a fair balance of interests - environmental, educational and business - but is this reflected among the Scottish Office departments in attendance? Bringing together environment, education and industry ministers and officials has been a problem in other countries: can we be more successful?

The targets of sustainable development take us out from local to global arenas. A sustainable lifestyle is only attainable, as the Brundtland report and the Rio summit made clear, if partnership and ownership lead to greater sharing. The earth could not support a population on the living standards which most of us enjoy here, so will education for sustainable development prepare people to redefine words like prosperity and progress, and act accordingly?

It is easy for people to be so upset by the enormity of the task that they resort to what someone has called struthionism (a gross insult to the ostrich, a competent bird). I do not believe that the ESDG will be either upset or struthionistic. It will wisely divide its task into achievable stages. But it must neither lose sight of the big canvas, nor of the bigger global one: the world is currently praising Scottish progress, and in some countries emulating it. Are we living up to its praise?

More money would help, but money reflects public perceptions of priority, often rather short term, so committed people may be even more important. If ESDG members can be visible and convincing enough to sway opinion money may flow more easily. And this includes the Scottish Office: one Secretary of State set it all going, his successor accepted the outcome. We have another one now: how will he advance the cause?

Professor John Smyth is former chairman of the Secretary of State's working party on environmental education.

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