UNESCO SDG4.7: by 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

When I first began working for SEEd, I was introduced to the concept of the Whole Institution Approach to Sustainability (WIA). I had never heard of it before, but encouraging schools and institutions to become more sustainable seemed like a logical idea to me. It was only as I started to be involved in the work further that I realised how deep and inspiring the project really is. Within the WIA programme, sustainability becomes a practical and philosophical driver for positive change and greater resilience, and that’s something I find really exciting.

So what is the Whole Institution Approach to Sustainability?

It turns out, The Whole Institution (or Whole School) Approach is a well established notion in learning for sustainability with proven and positive outcomes for individuals, the institutions involved and their wider communities. (Some examples of existing whole school/institution frameworks are included in the reference documents below.)

The philosophy behind the project is to go further than simply including Sustainability as an ‘add-on’ or a ‘nice to have’ within a school or institution. The idea is to mentor and support the entire community surrounding the organisation, to embed sustainability into the very heart of its operation. Within a school, that means the Headteacher, students and teachers of course, but it also means the wider community, of Parents, Governors, Administrators, Catering and  Maintenance staff. It can even extend wider to local transport, school uniform suppliers and local education decision makers.

If this sounds ambitious, then you’re right, but the brilliant thing about this approach is that it starts with where you are now, and builds on that, bit by bit, year on year.

Does the Whole Institution Approach really work?

From small pilot projects to national programmes, and now an emerging global interest, many examples of whole institution/school approaches have been developed. Some have been adapted from others such as WWF-UK’s Pathway project or the UK’s Sustainable Schools Initiative. The adaptations were designed so that the approach could fit into any local educational context and need.

The benefits of a whole institution approach have been researched and show that because everyone is involved, the work is more likely to be sustained even after changes in personnel. The approach also demonstrates that the institution is trying to model and learn, as well as teaching the students, which leads to innovation.

The evidence shows that this approach to learning for sustainability delivers increased student engagement, better learning outcomes across all subjects, more motivated students, support for the school from the wider community, and a sustained programme even with staff turnover.

Well before I joined the charity, SEEd had been at the forefront of promoting Whole Institution Approaches to Learning for Sustainability (LfS) for more than 20 years; this organisation has been leading alliances to support the work, and has enabled (through design, collaborations, dissemination or workshops) other countries such as Canada, Australia, Mexico, Columbia, Cyprus, Japan, Brazil, and Greece to adapt their own Whole Institution LfS frameworks.

What is the SEEd WIA model, and what makes it different?

There are many whole school, or whole institution, approaches – some are awards, some are based on standards. The SEEd model is based on a developmental learning model made transparent for students and staff. As such, it does not rely on anyone being an expert!

Our method is a practical, tested design that models a learning approach to sustainability. This means that it’s ok not to be perfect! Trying things out, learning from mistakes, practicing, and reflecting on the work enables year on year improvement. This process helps explore new ways of thinking that involves the whole community surrounding a school or organisation to effect a culture change towards Sustainability. SEEd can provide a framework that is tried and tested, creative, inclusive, effective, and efficient.

We are living through a time of unprecedented change, and in order to face the challenges of the future it’s important we find new, sustainable ways of living. The process of working together to find creative and positive solutions to these problems is empowering and hopeful for all involved. The Whole Institution Approach gives us the opportunity to educate young people in diverse environments with sustainability at their heart, helping them grow the skills they need for a better, fairer, more sustainable future.

Isa Clee

SEEd Project co-ordinator

Find out more about the SEEd Whole Institution Approach and get started with our free resources here.


A health example: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/09654280710827920

Domain Framework for Whole System Approach to ESD: Supporting educational leaders to create a culture of sustainable development, integrated into all aspects of the K-12 education system.

Henderson, K and Tilbury, D. (2004) Whole-School Approaches to Sustainability: An International Review of Sustainable School Programs http://daten.schule.at/dl/international_review2.pdf

Hopkins, C., Laurie, R., MckeownR., and Nonoyama-Tarumi, Y. (2016) Contributions of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) to Quality Education: A Synthesis of Research. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development 10:2 (2016): 226–242.

Kumar, K., and Sarangapani Padma M. (2004)History of the quality debate.Background paper prepared for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2005-The Quality Imperative. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001466/146655e.pdf

New Zealand –research, guidance and frameworks (2010) plus action competence http://www.tlri.org.nz/tlri-research/research-completed/school-sector/investigating-relationship-between-whole-school – Health (Australia)

Shallcross, T.,Robinson, J. (2008) Sustainability Education, Whole School Approaches and Communities of Action. Perspectives on Education and the Environment, Health and Sustainability; Springer: New York, NY, USA; pp. 299–320.