By Dr Morgan Phillips, Head of Education and Youth Engagement, Global Action Plan

On May 31st, the Department for Education (DfE) will release two new ITT’s for contracts relating to the delivery of the DfE Sustainability and Climate Change strategy (‘the DfE strategy’ for short). Advance detail of these two contracts can be found here: ‘Support Hub’ and ‘Sector Engagement and Support’. The final deadline for submission is July 26th 2023.

For the ‘Support Hub’, in the words of the DfE:

The Department is looking to procure an experienced and prominent national lead provider (or consortia) to design and produce an online ‘Sustainability Leadership in Education’ support hub to enable the design, development and implementation of climate action plans.

And for the ‘Sector Engagement and Support’ package:

The Department is looking to procure an experienced and prominent national lead provider (or consortia) to co-ordinate a regional network of environmental sustainability and climate change experts.

To be successful within an education setting, Sustainability Leads (or teams) need the skills, knowledge, and capacity to (a) develop and implement an effective Climate Action Plan, (b) achieve Climate Action Awards, and (c) fully participate in the National Education Nature Park. For this – and for any additional sustainability ambitions their setting has – they need high quality resources, external support, budget, and a strong mandate.

The DfE’s Sustainability and Climate Change strategy is helping to create that mandate, and the work being carried out (by Natural History Museum and partners), and in plan (the two new contracts), will strengthen the support and resources education settings and their Sustainability Leads require.

However, as our sector colleagues rightly point out, nothing in the DfE strategy is currently mandatory – the mandate is stronger than it was, but still not strong. This limits the availability of policy support, and therefore funding for resources, networks, training, staff time, and physical ‘green’ infrastructure. This situation – as the DfE Sustainability and Climate Change openly acknowledge – is unlikely to change until at least the beginning of the 2024/25 academic year.

This is a frustration for some. They fear that if OFSTED inspectors are not seeking evidence of a setting having a ‘Climate Action Plan’ or a ‘Sustainability Lead’ – or even giving them due recognition if they do – education settings have little incentive to create and support either. What we know, however, is that even without the OFSTED stick, increasing numbers of education settings – at all levels, early years through to higher education – are appointing staff to roles equivalent to a Sustainability Lead, and developing activities that align with the Climate Action Plan, Climate Action Awards, and Nature Park initatives.

As hosts of the UK Schools Sustainability Network (UKSSN), we are witnesses to this; we’re working with staff and students who are proactively establishing their own regional and national support networks and delivering their own projects and campaigns to further the cause of sustainability both locally and nationally. UKSSN was established to support these regional networks and demand for that support keeps growing. Furthermore, the popularity of GAP’s Generation Action projects and programmes, such as the Dirt Is Good Project, the Schools Good Life Charter, and Transform our World (and those of our many sustainability education sector colleagues) indicate the growing demand for innovative sustainability offerings.

This nascent surge of grass-roots activity is in response to growing demand from educators, parents, governors, and young people, and supported by an expanding ecosystem of sustainability education programmes and professionals. The DfE strategy is undoubtedly a welcome, additional motivating and enabling factor – bottom up and top down forces are combining to move sustainability education and action into the mainstream.

Similar to the work being led by the Natural History Museum and partners on the National Education Nature Park and Climate Action Awards, the DfE’s next two contracts (the ‘Support Hub’ and ‘Sector Engagement and Support’) will bolster the sustainability education ecosystem further and have the potential to give it more structure, diversity, and accessibility. This will make it easier for education settings to join and locate the networks and support they need to be effective on sustainability and climate change. Global Action Plan therefore sees both contracts as a fantastic opportunity. Through this work, we can, as a movement:

  • build on the foundations provided by the sustainability education ecosystem that already exists to further develop that ecosystem, and
  • formalise what is currently an exciting and diverse sustainability education ecosystem into an even more vibrant, but easier to navigate infrastructure.

Doing this will empower more educators who are either already in ‘Sustainability Lead’ roles, or interested in taking that role on. With clearer communications and a more navigable infrastructure, education settings will be better equipped to deliver meaningful, lasting, and regenerative action on sustainability and climate change.

As this work progresses, today’s innovators (the relatively small cohort of education settings who are already have a ‘Sustainability Lead’) will be joined by an early, and then late, majority who create and resource the role of ‘Sustainability Lead’ as the new infrastructure and narrative makes it easier and more conventional to do so.

In developing this infrastructure (in the form of a ‘Support Hub’, the ‘Sector Engagement and Support’ package, as well as the Climate Action Awards and the National Education Nature Park) there is, therefore, a pressing need to do three key things:

  1. Ensure the plurality and diversity of today’s sustainability education ecosystem is represented, sustained, and strengthened.
  2. Align it with a narrative / story that makes having a ‘Sustainability Lead’ and ‘Climate Action Plan’ both desirable and normal.
  3. Design an infrastructure that has an inbuilt capacity to scale – it must be ready to expand fast to meet a surge in demand driven by either (a) significant change in policy (e.g., it becomes mandatory for settings to have Sustainability Leads and Climate Action Plans), or (b) natural rapid growth resulting from the reaching and passing of a tipping point.

In this respect, is a good thing that the DfE strategy is, right now, only a strategy and not a set of statutory requirements that settings have to deliver on. I say good because while the sustainability education ecosystem is growing, it is not yet set up to manage a sudden surge in demand for its services. The DfE strategy, if successfully implemented, will secure the foundations and infrastructure of the sustainability education sector readying it to be built up and capable of meeting the demand that will be placed on it when 25,000+ Sustainability Leads (and their teams) call out for expert training, support, and resources.

I have no doubt that a policy shift is coming, education settings will – sooner rather than later – be judged by OFSTED on the quality and quantity of sustainability action and education they deliver. It is not a question of if, it is a question of when. And it will be sooner rather than later if the work done in the next two years convinces DfE Ministers that the supply of support for Sustainability Leads can match the demand that will inevitably balloon once sustainability is mandatory.

So, to convince Ministers, we – as a sustainability education movement – need to work together (and with the DfE) to build a robust and coherent sustainability education infrastructure that is easy to navigate, demonstrably growing, and – most critically – ready to scale.

As any history of education textbook will tell you, slow revolutions succeed far more often than fast ones. We’re about two years into this particular revolution, we won’t know if it has succeeded for a while, but I think it can; DfE’s Sustainability and Climate Change unit know what they’re doing. Work with them.