Education and sustainable development

Education for sustainable development (ESD) is a vision of education that seeks to balance human and economic well-being with cultural traditions and respect for the earth’s natural resources.  ESD applies trans-disciplinary educational methods and approaches to develop an ethic for lifelong learning, fosters respect for human needs that are compatible with sustainable use of natural resources and the needs of the planet and nurtures a sense of global solidarity.

UNESCO Decade of ESD 2005-2014

This vision of ESD (supplanting the status quo of educating young people for the traditional system of economic development) was launched at Rio in 1992. Chapter 36 of the Agenda for the 21st Century deliberately focussed on four areas thought necessary bring this about:  Access to education, reorientation of the existing system, public awareness building (so electors would support government initiatives) and the training of teachers and others.

Ten years later, the UN Generally Assembly recognised that ESD needed to be put more firmly on the agenda of formal education and therefore declared a decade of focus for the UN to be led by UNESCO.   The focus during 2005-2014 would be on re-orientating education policy, practice and investment and some resources were allocated to achieve this.

It was a promising start, but 20 years have elapsed and the vision still has to be met.  What has happened?

Barriers to sustainable development in education

Firstly, some of the difficulties were around perceptions.  The terminology itself has been a barrier.  Sustainable development is a term that is opaque to the public at large.  Because this originated from the popularly termed ‘Earth Summit’, ESD was interpreted as solely about ‘green issues’ and was initially kept alive by environmental educators

Educators generally agreed on the broad aims and learning approaches encompassed by ESD, however there was also a, largely internal, debate about the semantics, relating to the differing ethical standpoints of environmental educators. 

It has been a struggle to get the formal education sector and ministers of education to acknowledge ESD, which has meant that it has been treated in competition with other ‘adjectival education’ initiatives (see Richmond, cited in Ryan 2012 p4).  These have been regarded as bolt-ons to the curriculum, for example diversity awareness or peace studies.

Achievements: practices, toolkits, training

Looking at what has been achieved, pioneering practice has being funded, recorded and disseminated extensively thanks to the UNESCO and UNU Regional Centres of Expertise and some higher education bodies such as the HEA and EAUC in the UK.   Frameworks and toolkits have been developed and award schemes promoted, such as the Green Gown Award, to creating competition between organisations as a spur to progress.

Hopkinson (2012 p29) notes extensive progress with the training of teachers.  UNESCO has developed guidelines to help nations re-orientate their teacher training programmes. In the UK, agencies such as the National College for School Leadership embraced ESD in its programmes.  Competencies for ESD educators have been developed.  Many primary school teachers, inspired by the possibilities that ESD offers, have seized the initiative for themselves, taking action to embed sustainability, despite an unsupportive context.  I have met some of these school heads who have discovered for themselves how ESD can both enhance learning and increase student attainment.   

In higher education in the UK, a number of the newer universities are seeing the value of a whole institution approach to sustainable development, and that it can be a unique selling point in a competitive global market. In the business school sector, a UN initiative to share good practice, (PRME 2012), has support from signatories in 80 countries. 

The need for systemic change in education systems

So where are we now and what needs to happen?  Curriculum development has been limited in scope and impact, ‘due to the complexities of sustainability when applied within existing academic structures and processes of HE ‘in the UK  context (Ryan 2012).  There has been slightly more progress in the UK school sector, with ESD as a cross-curricula element, albeit non-statutory.  However, funding has now dried up for resource support from government. Good practice is only at institution level with little cross fertilisation between different parts of the education system.  Implementation is partial and patchy.

It might be worth looking at this change process in the light of systems thinker, Donella Meadow’s places to intervene in a system (Meadows, 1999).  She proposes that the most successful levers are the following, in descending order:

  • changing the rules of the system,  such as incentives
  • ability to add, change, evolve or self-organise system structure
  • changing the goals of the system
  • changing the mind-set out of which the system arises

Looking at the UK education sector, the incentives are just not there for embedding ESD.  In schools it is only ‘advisable’ and is not inspected by Ofsted and in Higher Education it is dependent on the individual institution.  Lecturers outside the environment-based disciplines are usually at liberty to ignore ESD without it affecting their prospects. 

In my opinion, there needs to be a clear focus on outcomes as well as a vision of what implementation might look like.  

Mainstreaming sustainability in education: lessons from business

In the work that Forum for the Future does with corporate sector, we have found that successful companies like Unilever, have progressed from adds on such as CSR, to incorporating sustainable development into the very heart of their strategy and DNA of their organisation.  This is what needs to happen in education.

Forum for the Future posits that there are six steps necessary to bring about systemic change:

  1. Experience the need to change
  2. Diagnose the system
  3. Create pioneering practices
  4. Enable the tipping
  5. Sustain the transition
  6. Set new rules for the mainstream

‘Without the engagement of education systems, advocates for ESD will continue to work on small scale sporadic initiatives that fail to reach sufficient numbers to shift societal behaviour.’  (Hopkinson 2012 pp32)

Looking at education, in my view, there has been activity in the first three categories with some leaders creating pioneering practice.  However, I would argue that it is only now that those holding the power to bring about system change are beginning to experience the impetus of a need for change.  Stakeholders, such as students, are beginning to agitate for change too. So much more work is needed before reaching the tipping point.

Time for some forward thinking

I would argue that the time is ripe for questioning the purpose of education and debating what constitutes a good education that will prepare todays youngsters for tomorrow’s world.  Young people themselves are beginning to demand a different system that will give them the skills to navigate change and a higher education system that is worth the investment.  Employers too are asking for the right skills for a resource constrained world where innovation is essential.  The goals of a new system need developing by the education leaders of today.



Hopkinson C (2012) ‘Reflections on 20+ years of ESD’, Journal of Education for Sustainable Development 2012 6:21 pp 21-35

Meadows M (1999) ‘Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system’, Hartland VT, Sustainability Institute.

Principles for Responsible Management Education.  (2012) ‘Inspirational Guide for the Implementation of PRME:  Placing Sustainability at the heart of management education’.  GSE Research, Leeds

Ryan A (2012) ‘Education for sustainable development and holistic curriculum change.  A review and guide’. York. The Higher Education Academy

UNESCO Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-2014. (Accessed 10 September 2012)

Useful references for further enquiry

The UNESCO website with information on every aspect of the Decade, including downloadable learning resources.

UNESCO Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-2014.

Well designed, practical resources for educators whether at primary or post-graduate level: The WWF Linkingthinking resource.

Forum for the Future is a non-profit organisation working globally to help business and government to create a sustainable future.  Its Masters course in Leadership for Sustainable Development is an exemplar.  Green Futures is the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures.

Higher Education Academy.  Resources to help the UK higher education sector integrate SD into the curriculum.

Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges resource bank, skills sharing courses and award scheme for the university and college sector in the UK.  (Of use to any educational institution however).

Sustainability and Environmental Education, SEED supports sustainable schools.  The Sustainable Schools framework can be accessed here.  SEED are also leading on ESD curriculum development and promoting its mainstreaming in the UK school sector. a project to help schools develop their “local school curriculum”.

January 2013

About the author

Jane Wilkinson's picture

London, UK

Jane Wilkonson is the Masters Course Director and Principal Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Fugure. Her other focus is on... (Read more)

Jane Wilkinson | Timeline for 'Education and sustainable development'