This is an essay about education told through the lens of my recent life. Individual stories are always shaped by the systems in which they are lived, and it is only through connecting our individual experiences to broader social issues that we can ever hope to create change. As a new mum, I hope for a future where my son will learn how to live a happy, sustainable and creative life and worry about the alternative – the neo-liberal treadmill. This essay will argue that though our education system is in dire straits, there are seeds of possibility for change.
Standardized tests, league tables and fear are the metrics that shape our education system today. It is the product and not the process that is valued. As children and young people are told to pursue this product at all costs, failure is not an option or if experienced is understood as a personal shortcoming. It is hardly surprising that we are witnessing a mental health epidemic amongst young people and teachers alike. The pandemic has exposed the stark socio-economic inequalities between young people in our society and revealed the chronic underfunding of education. It has forced us to ask what we should be educating our children to prepare them for an uncertain future.
Behind the rhetoric of ‘broken’ education systems are voices of hope. They demand that education prepares all young people with competencies that will allow them to ‘care for themselves, others and the natural environment, for present and future generations’ (Private Member’s Bill, 2021). Conversations about the purpose of education are happening and successful initiatives (like Schumacher College) provide alternatives to mainstream offerings. Community-led education schemes (such as repair cafés and community gardens) are growing in popularity and offer more informal spaces for learning how to live sustainably. Yet, as with many grassroots campaigns, questions remain about how we can scale-up and put into practice the lessons learned in these spaces to a system so rigidly tied to mass testing and ever-improving outcomes.
I have spent the past three years looking at how young people today are taught about sustainability through educational resources devised by different organisations. These resources exist partly because there is no national requirement to teach sustainability within the curriculum (in English schools) and dedicated teachers go out of their way to find these resources to enhance their lessons. What I notice is how much attention is given to a narrow range of consumer actions – turn off the lights, turn down the heating, recycle, buy local and fair. Young people are told that being sustainable is about pursuing a range of easy individual actions that anyone can do, and they make a big difference. The problem is that many of these easy actions are ingrained in our day-to-day lives, shaped by our social circumstances and connected to things that matter deeply to us – as the tale that opened this paragraph attests. By focusing on individual consumer ‘choices’, we limit the range of possibilities that children are encouraged to imagine, and we restrict access to this ‘good’ life to those who can afford it. Like the education system these resources are embedded within, the metrics for success are predictable, do not challenge the status quo and so do not prepare children with skills they need for their future.
As I look at my son, I feel an overriding love to protect him from the ugliness of the inequalities within the world and at the same time a burden of responsibility to foster his awareness of his privileged place within the world. Education, like parenting, is full of contradictions – to open spaces for innovation and the practices of tomorrow to be discovered yet to learn a pre-determined set of skills and values so we can fit into the existing system; to teach children about their connection to the world as we silo out different disciplines and cultural canons and give them different currency. When it comes to education about the planet, both within educational resources aimed at young people and public education campaigns (such as Love food, Hate waste), what is missing is insight into the interdependence between us and the wider systems (environmental, economic and socio-cultural) we operate within. In a marketized economy, we are taught to believe in the power and centrality of the individual. Questions of global inequality and political responsibility are avoided in favour of individualised appeals to use resources and our purchasing ‘power’ efficiently. Such ‘solutions’ are inevitably constrained by a worldview which celebrates individual success as earned through hard work (rather than unequally shaped through birth and heritage) and displayed through the possession of qualifications and material things. As the youth climate strikers so forcefully argued, qualifications are of little use if their home is under the sea.
Individual stories matter – they are how we experience the world, and there are many moments in an individual’s life which pivot their perspectives and guide them towards new opportunities to learn. But the individual story (which is itself multiple and non-linear) is part of an interconnected web of evolving stories which are lived or have been lived in different locations on a planet we all share. The pandemic has made this point abundantly clear. We must remember that the individual is only the beginning of the conversation – a conversation which should actively seek voices we are not normally exposed to and try to understand them. Starting from this realisation involves a radical re-shaping of our education system. It is an education that recognises and supports the potential of the individual to think critically about the world they operate within, to ask questions about why things are the way they are and crucially to engage with ideas and people from different walks of life to put that learning into practice. It is an education that values music and gardening as much as it values science and maths. An education that opens our perspectives to other cultures and different ways of living on the planet and is not afraid to call out injustices it finds and collectively imagine alternatives. It is a lifelong endeavour which does not burden children with sole responsibility but offers examples for them to experiment with. The stakes are high, but it must be an education where it is possible to fail, to learn from the experience and try again without fear of reprisal. These ideals are far removed from the rigid and competitive approach to education we see in England today, where children have little space to play with ideas and teachers are overworked to breaking point. Yet there is desire for change amongst young people and buds of hope are spreading as communities make connections between different social justice causes (for example, Black Lives Matter and Climate Strikes). Our stories together can blossom around a critical mission to ‘protect the forest for our children’. This is not as easy as turning off the lights, but it is more likely to grow an education system where people and planet matter.
Dr Katy Wheeler is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at University of Essex. She has conducted research on sustainable consumption (including recycling and Fairtrade) and is currently finalising a project on sustainability education resources.