Build Back Better and Rebooting The Future through Education

Ann Finlayson

June 2020

What does an education for the future look like in the UK, and elsewhere, given the crises we are now facing?

This is a question on the minds of many educators and parents right now, and is something I have been thinking about for many years as a former teacher, UK SDC Commissioner for Education and Capability Building, teacher trainer and, now, as the CEO of a sustainability education charity – SEEd.

I recently came across this quote:

“When I look back in every period of history, two flames have always been burning in the human heart, the flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope that you can build a better world…..… To understand that is very important, because if you don’t have some aspiration then you find yourself in a position… (of worrying) … how the human race is going to cope with its problems.”

Tony Benn 2006

The way we have currently constructed our education system is based upon a notion that we (the decision makers) know how to prepare young people for a future world that we have identified.

That future world is based on what we know now and understand now. This is a world that works well for some and, one could argue, is a means by which we ensure the entitled continue to be entitled, the gifted and talented are identified to satisfy our future needs, and the rest are socially and culturally trained to be good citizens accepting this status quo.

It could be argued that this perception is reinforced through our acceptance of private schools, the primacy of Oxbridge and a Government cabinet reflecting this.

I also say this because when Michael Gove was reviewing the National Curriculum he ignored all the evidence from his own review panel of experts, following the a advice of a US academic, Ed Hirsch, whose basic premise is that state education systems are primarily about inculcating young people in your ‘culture’.

Which begs the questions, ‘Whose culture are we talking about?’ In an increasingly diverse Britain, and a globalized, connected world, this is hard to define. The ‘British values’ part of PSHE looks like a list of democratic principles—and these are not uniquely British.

Furthermore, all of this ‘culture’ implicitly focuses upon us as a species separate from the natural world that we depend on. It also, often by omission, endorses our imperialist approach to the environment and the ‘other’ e.g. cheaper labour in communities in other parts of the world, that own the resources we want.

It has also led to an industry saying they have the answer e.g. creativity, enterprise, STEM etc. These are solutions often pounced upon by politicians as they fit their political purposes and view of education. Our UK Prime Minister is currently saying that the Build Back Better focus of the government will be:

  • Infrastructure
  • Technology and the digital world
  • Education.

Why those three? Building big ‘Infrastructure projects’ can increase GDP, allowing a country to get a better credit rating, feeding more borrowing and our massive financial system to retain its global position. ‘Technology’ because we are not a manufacturing country anymore – so this is the hope. ‘Education’? – because it will feed the other two. This is a technocratic, imperialist view of education.

Our current existential crises are not just limited to climate change and pandemic, but include the destruction of ecosystems and their services, disruption of the essential cycles in nature and the massive loss of biodiversity and species – a looming ecological catastrophe.

We live in a world of inequality and conflict, and where slavery, poverty and gross injustice continues to be found. As educators we have built ‘educations’ that address these issues. Yet, by continuing to focus on these as single issues we are in danger of building silos and the professional territory building that argues about which ‘topic’ in education will save the world.

Even in environmental and sustainability conversations – we have fought about energy education, outdoor education, climate change education, waste education, again missing the wider point of addressing ‘the flame of anger against injustice’ and ‘the flame of hope to build a better world’. Decades after our first attempts to bring a more holistic approach to these matters, we are still little further forward.

It must be time to rise above all this, and maybe thinking about the purpose of education in the light of these existential crises may be the way to go.

Having said that, please do carry on the learning associated with your topic/passion/expertise but, maybe also, ask yourself what part of the whole is it fulfilling and what new thinking is it engendering? The myth of ‘awareness raising’ or giving people the facts and then they will make the right rational decisions is a theory of change, so persistent, I find it hard to imagine the effort needed to change it. This approach does not work, and has never worked, in creating social change.

We need to encourage thinking about change – environmental change, social change, economic change, personal changes and political change.

We also need to understand the systems that we operate and live within, and how they connect. We cannot talk about the coronavirus without discussing globalisation, food production, poverty, economics, wildlife, and other human systems such as trade, health, politics, education. To not do so is, at best, to short change our young people, and at worst is censorship. We need to think more in systems.

We cannot address these existential crises without asking the question ‘How did we get here?’ – i.e. the encouragement of socially critical thinking. This would include not educating about values (as the Reboot the Future education survey seems to suggest) or providing students with a suite of ‘missing values’ that they need to adopt. The current pandemic must be challenging people to question what they really value and what is for our ‘common good’. Thinking about the common good for the benefit of society is essential in my mind. This is different from a starting point of thinking what values you want to imbue in young people, given that Rutger Bregman says we are nice and collaborative by nature (Humankind: A Hopeful History). Good education is surely concerned with the exploration of values and then allowing students to reflect and make their own minds up. Anything else is indoctrination.

Which brings me to a fundamental approach to education that has been prevalent for centuries. The idea that students are ‘empty vessels’ to be filled is a notion that many on the conservative spectrum of political thought seem to believe in earnest. The truth is that young people do have a well-developed suite of values. The recent SEEd Youth survey (https://se-ed.co.uk/edu/sustainability-attitudes/) revealed that they get their information, knowledge, and attitudes from a wide range of sources including social media, TV, the internet.  As educators, surely one of our critical tasks is to build and enable critical thinking about those sources with young people?

In doing all this, we need to ask how to build the hope and not depress its flame with young people. We need futures thinking and to build a sense of agency in young people. In school there are two ways to do this effectively – inquiry based project learning or action learning, and connecting their learning to the real world through in-community projects (this latter, not just raising money for charity as a displacement activity).

These methodologies allow students to learn how to learn, be creative, work in teams, work collaboratively, work in the real world – all skills many businesses say they want.

Sadly, teachers are struggling to do this, given that state education in the UK has become so politicized. Many in the profession are fearful of being judged poorly by the measures that follow. This is one reason many primary teachers educate about ‘air pollution’ rather than climate change. Again Mr. Gove –thank you!

Teachers will always say they have no time, given the pressures to deliver the National Curriculum, lack of resource and little training – they are not wrong! So those wonderful people that are adopting these approaches are doing an amazing job keeping flames alight – but they are not mainstream.

So we, and they, need a mandate to make the purpose of education clear – and the methodologies that follow should be fit for that purpose. That brings me to the need to change the Education Act, as it is statutory. The National Curriculum is not statutory. This has been a SEEd campaign for many years (https://se-ed.co.uk/edu/about-seed/projects/seed-campaign-include-sustainability-education-act/).

We need to disabuse teachers and schools that it is difficult to teach for a sustainable future and to build resilience. It is not expensive, nor a new subject; it is a way of teaching and designing learning opportunities – so, training in that is required. It needs Inspectors trained in these ways of teaching and it needs full partnerships with parents and communities – not an army of consultants. It needs schools to be supported in this learning journey through such mechanisms as ‘the whole school approach’.

Crucially, we as an environmental and sustainability education sector need to review our role in this new approach – can we let go of our own specific agendas and find a better way to support this holistic rebooting?

Building Back Better should not be about critiquing teachers, schools or politicians – it is a time when we should all be reflecting upon what we are doing, why we do it and how we can change.

This has been SEEd’s mission and we will continue to pursue it.

Ann Finlayson, Executive Chair, SEEd

Sustainability & Environmental Education