There has not been a purpose of education written since the beginning of state education in England in 1870. With the overwhelming changes that all societies are experiencing and fearful of future change, this brings into question – what are we educating for? Jobs and societal institutions are changing and it is less easy to use a ‘banking’ system of education to prepare as the future is becoming less known. This requires much more of a resilience building approach as defined by the UN in SDG4.7:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the 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.

But what is ESD and how is this target different from the education we already have?

UNESCO have stated that ESD : empowers learners to take informed decisions and responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society, for present and future generations, while respecting cultural diversity. It is about lifelong learning and is an integral part of quality education. ESD is holistic and transformational education, which addresses learning content and outcomes, pedagogy and the learning environment. (UNESCO, 2018)

So ESD is about the content (the what) which UNESCO says should be holistic and should be a pluralistic pedagogy (the how). This means an integrated education approach, showing interconnections across all systems – environmental, social and economic. Therefore, it cannot be a subject or a topic. It should be embedded in everything. Pluralistic means we need to consider everyone when thinking about sustainability – those near and those far away, all economic groups, and all generations. This means engaging with more people rather than thinking we can find this all in a textbook. That engagement, especially if through inquiry-based learning projects will lead to a sense of responsibility and agency in young people.

But what is happening in the UK?

Actually, quite a lot! The pandemic has led to people talking about education. Two developments are of note:

1.Firstly, Lord Jim Knight’s Private Members Bill in the House of Lords.

This contains SEEd and RSPB’s campaign and wording. It says Section 78 of the Education Act should be amended to include “instils an ethos and ability to care for oneself, others and the natural environment, for present and future generations”.

If this Bill gets through the House of Commons this would be a major contribution to SDG4.7 from the English Education system.

This Bill is less about knowledge and more about practicing and learning from taking actions to build a sense of agency, compassion, resilience and willingness to engage with local and global issues and be part of solutions.

This is not asking schools to be perfect at solving these issues but to model learning for a sustainable and just future to encourage a lifelong learning in our young people.

The Bill also encourages this to happen throughout a student’s school life and for there to be a progression in the development of their ethos and abilities. The Bill has got through the two readings in the House of Lords and is now in Committee stage with the hope that this will go into the Commons in early 2022.

The Bill is here:

The Bill contains:

a) Care for oneself

This includes the development of skills to lead a productive and fulfilled life (economic viability) including basic skills, transferable skills to jobs, some specific job skills e.g. communication, team working, problem solving, working with change. Most of this is seen as the purpose of our current education system. There is also a Skills Bill going through government right now and green skills amendments have been accepted so far.

New additions to thinking about care for oneself are socio-emotional skills e.g. understanding and working on your own wellbeing and mental health, and relationships education.

MIND promotes the 5 ways of Wellbeing which has been rolled out to schools through the Global Learning Project (2013-2018) and now through the British Council Connecting Classrooms projects (from NEF, Gov guidance 2008, NHS, Mind and many others). The 5 ways are:

Give, Connect, Be active, Take notice & Keep learning.

Examples of nature-based wellbeing activities used by some schools are:

  • Outdoor Classroom Day (a UK idea that has gone global) run by Learning Through Landscapes
  • RSPB’s Connection to Nature work ,

b)    Care for others

Care for others near and far includes how we all gain wellbeing from caring for others e.g.

Give, Connect, & Take notice from the MIND 5 ways.

These have been developed into Global Learning teaching materials:

It can include developing understandings of global interdependencies, promoting justice, human rights and sustainable ways of living, and encouraging active engagement in local and global attempts to eradicate poverty and inequality (levelling up)

C) Care for the environment

Care for the environment – is a concept that was first described in 1977 at Tblisi. It includes learning about the environment (knowledge), learning in the environment (connecting) and learning for the environment (skills and agency). This requires approaches such as systems thinking, critical thinking, action learning and futures thinking.

This is not just about turning off lights, or recycling but understanding the systems and decisions these are part of, and how a learner can progress to making informed decisions and take action on local and global emergencies. (UNESCO ESD for 2030:

Combining Care for oneself, others and the environment could look like this:

Care for self and others, near or far, means understanding that lives and communities in one locality are connected to lives and communities elsewhere, whether spatially (local-global), temporally (past, present and future) or through intersecting issues (gender equality, poverty, climate justice). These same interconnections and responsibility towards each other extend to all living things; human and planetary well-being are deeply interdependent.

This requires:

  • openness towards alternative perspectives and ways of seeing the world, and appreciation of global biodiversity. 
  • recognition of the implications of past and present actions, and their impact on different communities and future generations
  • a willingness to act for equity and justice, and more sustainable futures.

2.The Coalition Our Shared World – begun in 2019 and gathering pace now, has around 150 members (organisations and individuals) and we have been working together on getting support for SDG4.7. Our starting point has been Purpose of education and evidence. The new website, the 5 workstreams and ways to join will be launched on October 20th. Meanwhile take a look at the holding page here: