"Our biggest challenge in this new century is to take an idea that seems abstract - sustainable development - and turn it into a reality for all the world's people."
Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General
I have recently been arranging visits to inspect schools' provision for supporting education for sustainable development (ESD). In talking to headteachers about the purpose of my visit, I have been struck by the lack of a common understanding about what this concept means and how it can be used to promote a positive ethos around the school. And few schools are aware of the ways in which ESD can support teaching and learning in citizenship.
ESD is not a new concept. It has strong roots in environmental and development education and good practice can be found in schools that have made links to personal, social, economic and citizenship issues. The revision of the national curriculum in 2000 raised the profile of ESD.
Schools are now asked to promote pupils' commitment to sustainable development, defined as enabling pupils to "develop the knowledge, values and skills to participate in decisions about the way that we do things individually and collectively, both locally and globally, that will improve the quality of life now without damaging the planet for the future".
Further support came with the launch of the Sustainable Development Action Plan a year ago by Charles Clarke, then Education Secretary. He stressed the need "to ensure that people engaged in learning are given the opportunities and inspiration to think about and really appreciate their role as world citizens".
Despite these initiatives, ESD is not easily identifiable in most schools in England. It is more evident and better organised in primary schools, where teachers are more used to working across a range of subjects; in secondary schools, work is limited because individual departments have not fully explored the wide range of opportunities open to them. In those few schools where good practice has been identified, a sustained approach has usually evolved over several years.
The first small step may have been an individual initiative, often extra-curricular, arising from the commitment of one individual in the school or a small group of pupils, with success leading to a wider range of activities and some whole-school involvement.
The introduction of citizenship as a national curriculum subject has provided a significant new opportunity for ESD, not only in raising awareness but also in supporting practical action. ESD is not just about the environment and recycling, although these are key components. It is about stewardship, sustainable change, interdependence, the needs and rights of future generations, diversity, uncertainty and precaution and the quality of life, equity and justice.
Such concepts can be developed through the content of national curriculum citizenship. When related to topical issues, they can regularly feature as matters for enquiry and discussion, drawing on the news of the day. More broadly, in schools where good practice is in evidence, there is an emphasis on the development of positive attitudes and values so that pupils want to make a contribution to a sustainable future. These schools give pupils real responsibilities, individually and collectively, in looking after and improving their learning environment. It is not just about learning in the classroom but about positive actions outside. Such work can have long-term benefits. There is a Chinese proverb that says: "If you are thinking one year ahead, sow seed. If you are thinking 10 years ahead, plant a tree. If you are thinking 100 years ahead, educate the people."
Most schools which promote ESD effectively have an active school council where pupils have real power to make a difference. Pupils are actively involved in initiatives that promote sustainability - eg in conserving energy, recycling materials and improving the whole school environment, including the grounds.
Effective use is also frequently made of the wider school community as a learning resource, linked to individuals and groups in the neighbourhood.
In particular, pupils and their families are encouraged to play a part in their local community, developing citizenship through action and using the wider school environment to provide interesting and stimulating contexts for personal development.
As one pupil put it, enthusiastically explaining his involvement in an ESD project: "In this school we don't just talk the talk, we also walk the walk!"
Leszek Iwaskow is an HMIand specialist adviser for geography
* Further information about good practice can be found in the Ofsted report Taking the First Step Forward:Towards an Education for Sustainable Development.