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When local meets global

Jerome Monahan looks at a Government action plan to bring sustainability to the classroom

This September saw the publication of the Department for Education and Skills action plan for sustainable development in education. "It represents a considerable opportunity," says David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association. "In emphasising the global dimension, it talks directly to geography teachers well practised in developing children's understanding of the synthesis between the human and physical worlds."

This is the focus of the first section of the plan. Other parts promise to reduce the environmental footprint of the department and schools, and section four emphasises how education for sustainable development (ESD) partnerships must be built across the entire community.

"What is encouraging," adds geography HMI Leszek Iwaskow, "is that the plan marks a significant shift away from compartmentalising ESD into something that's merely the responsibility of geography departments." The plan emphasises the role of other areas (design and technology, citizenship and science) and pledges the department to work with all subject associations in creating resources and harnessing outside links. There are also promises to promote an annual whole-school International Education Week and to set up a new website, Global Pathways for Schools. Geographers will find themselves very much in the loop once the plan's stated aim of working with school leaders to ensure that ESD is integrated into all aspects of school life starts to bite.

"Charles Clarke discovered in the summer how thin his department's policy was on this front when he was called to give evidence to the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee," says Libby Grundy, director of the Council for Environmental Education. The plan may have been a rushed job, but it was clear the department was listening. Clarke didn't want another strategy document but a call to action.

One example of a sustainable schools project was launched in Milton Keynes the day after the Government's plan went public. At least five schools have signed up as partners in the scheme, promoted by Global Education Milton Keynes, thanks to a pound;34,753 lottery grant distributed by the Social, Economic and Environmental Development (SEED) programme. "There are at least 30 national schemes for schools to choose from," says Global Education project co-ordinator Rosemary Clarke. "These include initiatives promoting energy efficiency, recycling and improvements in the school environment - but what is really needed is something that gathers all the strands together."

A good portion of the launch was devoted to establishing a clear sense of what sustainability in education should encompass. Dr Michael Synnott, the Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre director, set out the differences between standard and sustainable economic growth models and started to map the combination of theoretical and practical concerns schools will need to address if developing the topic to its full potential. This was discussed further in group sessions in which broad issues such as international aid, public transport and the preservation of the landscape were judged in terms of their value as key sustainability themes.

Participants were then invited to assess their school's progress against the QCA's seven core sustainability concepts. These included old favourites such as nurturing an appreciation of diversity, both human and biological.

Less familiar was the requirement to build an understanding of the uncertainty surrounding sustainability - an acknowledgement that often there are no pat solutions to complex economic and environmental problems and that what is required is pragmatism and flexibility. This is the kind of "different thinking" that David Lambert was pleased to see encouraged in the detail of the plan. "We need to get away from teaching based on a culture of answers," he says. "Sustainability education is about providing room for abstract thought and argument."

"It is in these areas that geography teachers are particularly well-placed to contribute, reinforcing the global dimension," says Leszek Iwaskow.

According to Libby Grundy, another significant aspect of the plan is its acknowledgement of the broader role that the informal education sector can play.

The Milton Keynes launch provided an opportunity for schools to make contact with local organisations such as the Milton Keynes Parks Trust, the council's school transport and recycling departments and the National Energy Foundation.

This initiative owes much to a similar award scheme under way in Pembrokeshire which highlights the kind of integrated whole school development that is possible. The Johnston Primary School, Haverford West, for example, has a long-term commitment to sustainability education, supported by senior management. "We have a clear action plan," says Debra Davies, Johnston's deputy headteacher. "It starts with the absolute basics, and that is building our children's self-esteem since without their confidence the best sustainability resources in the world would be of little use. The children have learned that they can be initiators of change, whether it's pointing out a crisp packet in the school pond, carrying recycling messages into their own homes or making representations to the community council about the need for better local play facilities."

In Milton Keynes, Moorlands First School headteacher Margaret Fo has discussed sustainability with Year 3 pupils. "It was revealing how clued up they were on fair trade," she reports. "I was pleasantly surprised." She admits there is a danger that teachers do not give children enough credit for their understanding of such issues. "The launch was useful," says Bryan Schram, headteacher at Southwood Middle School. "We are an Eco-School but this gave us a far broader context in which to assess our commitment to sustainability, encouraging us to look at the whole curriculum."

The one hollow note is Charles Clarke's suggestion in the introduction to the action plan that sustainable education can often be achieved with no additional cash. "Unless school initiatives are resourced, they risk not being taken as seriously as those that are," says Libby Grundy. In Milton Keynes, for example, the lottery grant pays for such things as the cover needed to release teachers for conferences. It is a point that's also not lost of David Lambert. "While the TTA's commitment to including sustainability in the training of new teachers is essential," he says, "so is the need to make it a key part of continuing professional development and that does require money."

Milton Keynes schools in the pilot project Langland Combined School, Moorlands First School, White Spire Special School, Southwood Middle School and Springfield Middle School.

Key concepts in sustainable development lInterdependence - eg, fostering school links.

lCitizenship and stewardship - eg, giving children real responsibility in their schools.

lNeeds and rights of future generations - eg, giving opportunities for pupils to think about preferred and alternative futures.

lDiversity - eg, celebrating different cultures in the school.

lQuality of life - eg, managing and preventing bullying.

lSustainability - eg, recycling.

lUncertainty and precaution - eg, monitoringrevising the school's ESD actions over time.

The Milton Keynes scheme:Tel: Rosemary Clarke 01908 324498310951 The Pembrokeshire scheme: Action Plan for Sustainable Development in Education: Taking the First Step Towards an Education For Sustainable Development (Ofsted 2003): Council for Environmental Education (CEE):

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