By Paul Vare

‘Recognising that schools wishing to nurture student agency require a culture that supports the professional agency of teachers, has implications for policy, which in turn requires compelling evidence to support it. This research contributes to the evidence that is essential if schooling is to evolve into something recognisable as learning as sustainable development.’ Paul Vare


Secondary school students are granted few opportunities to change their world, yet they are expected to engage fully as citizens the moment they leave school. This issue is growing starker with multiple global crises contributing to mental health concerns. This situation stimulated a practical education for sustainability project designed to promote student agency by supporting small, student-led, community-based projects, planned and supported within the secondary school context. This research ran alongside the project in order to investigate (a) the impact of implementing these projects on the students involved and (b) the implications of this for their teachers. The research approach was based on Cultural-historical Activity Theory, which explores the learning generated through multi-layered interactions within a given activity system. In stimulating student agency, it was clear that the project had challenged existing practice. Students sensed a shift in power relations,remarking on how teachers respected and listened to their opinions. Those teachers who appeared more authoritarian appeared to experience the greatest transformation although ceding power did not come naturally, particularly where this challenged notions around teacher responsibility. In this way, teachers’ professionalism threatened to become the means by which they withheld power from their students. Implications of this for schools and policy are considered.

Dr Paul Vare starting as a teacher in UK and Tanzania but soon switched to community-based environmental education, firstly in Leicester and then Mount Elgon, Uganda. His career has focused on international education and sustainability projects working for charities but with communities, large corporations and governments including the UN. He joined the University of Gloucestershire in 2013 to follow his interest in teaching and research.

Click here to read Paul Vare’s full article