Guest Blog from Katie Carr – Leading Sustainability in Schools

Leading Sustainability in Schools

“What is the role of schools, and more specifically school leadership, in the transition to a sustainable future for humankind? What different forms of leadership are needed in order to enable this role?

For those of us engaged in promoting sustainability learning, it is clear that the issue has never been more pressing. The effects of climate change are now clear to all, with the prospect of summer arctic sea-ice disappearing within decades, increasing occurrences of extreme weather events worldwide, and the World Bank predicting that the number of people living in regions with ‘absolute water scarcity’ will almost double – to 2.8 billion – by 2025. The question of what is driving the impending global catastrophe is no longer debatable; 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is driven by human activity, through our increasing burning of fossil fuels to meet growing energy demands.

These are huge and complex issues, which require commensurate effort to address. In their book ‘The Burning Question’, Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark use the metaphor of a train with three carriages: extraction (of fossil fuels from the earth), combustion, and consumption, each of which is tightly coupled to the next, and hurtling downhill at breakneck speed. “To have the best chance of cutting emissions,” they argue, “it’s clear that efforts are needed to apply the brakes to all three carriages at once”, meaning that action at government and corporate levels are required, as well as an immense shift in patterns of consumption, especially in richer countries.

Education for sustainable development (ESD) “embraces environmental concerns as well as issues such as the fight against poverty, gender equality, human rights, cultural diversity, and education for all”, so says the UN, at the end of the Decade for Sustainable Development (2004-14). Until a few years ago, the UK education system had a progressive Sustainable Schools Strategy, championed by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which supported schools to provide a holistic approach to ESD that encompassed learning about, and for, environmental sustainability and social justice, based on participatory learning approaches aimed at empowerment, critical thinking, and active global citizenship. Education reforms since 2010 have included not only the end of the Sustainable Schools Strategy, but also a significant narrowing of the national curriculum, which now focuses on core subjects such as literacy and maths, with no reference at all to sustainable development in the primary curriculum. Teachers, however, are imaginative and dedicated, and many schools are still ‘doing’ ESD. But, given ever-present external pressure exerted by inspection and the standards agenda, increasing accountability of individual school leaders, and the fact that our curriculum no longer promotes education ABOUT sustainability, let alone FOR sustainability, or AS sustainability, what role can schools effectively play in enabling their learners to play an active role in creating a sustainable future?

Our education system was established, in its current form, soon after the start of the industrial revolution, and, despite tweaks at the edges, would still be generally recognisable by those early churchmen, philanthropic industrialists and politicians who were influential in the establishment of state schooling. While there are not many who would disagree that universal access to free education is a Good Thing, it is worth considering that the purpose of education at the time was to ensure an effective and productive labour force in order to maintain Britain’s position as a global economic power. Ken Robinson’s hugely popular TED Talk illustrates the ways in which our education mirrors its industrial roots: “ringing bells, separate facilities, specialised into separate subjects…educat[ing] children in ‘batches’”.

But there is another, more insidious, dimension which schools have inherited from the system’s post-industrialisation roots, and that is the hierarchical power structures of monitoring, inspection, bureaucracy, control, and assessment. In the early 20th century, the American industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor published “Principles of Scientific Management” which laid out his production efficiency methodology through fragmenting tasks into the smallest possible measurable part, minimising skill requirements (and therefore training time) amongst workers, measuring individuals’ output in minute detail, and rewarding or disciplining accordingly. This approach, though at the time received with caution by a US House of Representatives Committee because it reduced workers to mindless, disempowered followers and gave a dangerously high level of control to managers, has provided a blueprint for modern organisations – including schools – and it is a system that is almost invisible to us because of its pervasiveness. And, most pertinent to the challenges posed by sustainability, this blueprint is predicated upon an assumption that people and planet are framed as resources to be managed, measured, controlled and, ultimately, exploited in the service of profit.

It is for school leaders to challenge this paradigm within their own learning communities. Rather than take on the role of all-powerful, heroic or charismatic leader, (which is unsustainable on a personal level as well as helping to reinforce the narrative of power and control), they can focus on the three function of leading sustainably: distributing responsibility so that teachers and learners can explore, challenge and enquire; creating conditions that empower rather than control; and enable children to flourish as capable, inquisitive, connected, compassionate decision-makers. In schools where this is happening, education as sustainability can flourish. But it is happening in spite of, not because of, the policy and practice contexts of our education system.”

Katie Carr is the Director of Cumbria Development Education Centre, a member of the coordinating group of the national Consortium of Development Education Centres, and is a student on the PG Certificate in Sustainable Leadership at the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, University of Cumbria.