The UK’s Sustainable Schools Alliance – a case study


This case study is not a single initiative nor a one organisation programme. Rather is has been a journey since the early 1990’s. As such this case study represents a systems approach and a scaling up through:

– creating some niches of innovative practice;

– using a patchwork of regimes/levers that existed at different times;

– exploring the potential of a change in the landscape of sustainability in the formal education system of the UK;1

– reviewing and evaluating.

This journey also represents the stages and approaches to scaling up2 that were beginning to be seen in 2010 across the whole of the English school system, but have since been slowed down due to changes in government focus.


1990’s to 2002: WWF-UK ESD Action Learning projects – for school innovation whole school and transformative approaches3 (niche).

Conclusion – not leading to change because of fragmented pilot approaches, lack of wider participation, and lack of a whole school approach (scanning and evaluating progress). Confirmed by Ofsted (schools inspectorate) inspections (2003, 2005)

2002-2007: WWF-UK Pathways Project – Longitudinal study of the learning journeys of 50 schools. ‘Pathways’ toolkit created – based on whole school approach, self-auditing and planning using a development framework (regime).

Conclusion: schools were looking for a framework to help them to systematically continue their work.

2004 – 2009: Sustainable Development Commission worked with Department of Education to create a sustainable schools framework. Policy statement – “All schools will be sustainable schools by 2020” (regime and potential for change)

Included regional networks. Local authorities and NGOs encouraged to work together locally, leadership research and capability building in clusters of schools as well as inclusion in national Teaching Awards (regime)

2005-2008: Ofsted and WWF-UK – longitudinal study over 3 years in 15 schools showing impact of ESD and sustainable schools on learning outcomes and school performance (regime)

2008: CEE was re-launched as SEEd with project to engage NGOs in sustainable schools initiative.

2011 2016: launch of Sustainable Schools Alliance (SSA) to continue the work after government stopped supporting it. However in the Defra 2011 Natural Environment White Paper. SSA includes a management board of 18 leading organizations.

2013 – 2016: NUS/Cooperative surveys show demand for ESD from students (regime)

Sustainability removed from national curriculum aims and objectives (regime change)

2013- current: SEEd continues to promote ESD and sustainable schools through campaigns to include in curriculum, and the 1944 Education Act (regime) as well as mainstream schools (potential for change)


Many other education jurisdictions adapted the sustainable schools framework e.g. Australia, Columbia, Cyprus, Brazil and was seen as innovative



This journey shows that resilience, adapting to changing circumstances and building relationships through communities of practice and alliances can keep an initiative alive. It requires a long-term view of change. Experimentation – action learning approaches helped create those communities. Later adopters were encouraged by a rhythm of events and access to good practice e.g. annual conferences, webinars, SEEd policy fora.

Understanding of regimes was essential, allowing connections to policy, and school levers; evidence of improved learning outcomes; leadership and school development planning; identifying support structures e.g. networks, SSA, clusters, Teaching Awards; external influences on school system.



Further Reading

1Birney, A. 2014 Cultivating System Change (Do Sustainability)

2Rogers, EM. 2005 Diffusion of Innovation (New York: Simon & Schuster)

3Sterling, S. ‘Sustainable Education’ 2001 Pub – Schumacher Society