Colleges must put sustainability at the heart of their teaching – and that means far more than tweaking the curriculum, says Cerian Ayres

Recent protests around the world demonstrate that communities are unifying on the need for sustainability in how we interact with our environment. But how should education respond, and what does this mean for technical and vocational education?

Sustainability is more than just the latest hot topic and far more than a simple question of tweaking curriculum. It needs to be considered holistically, societally and educationally. This is the lesson of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), an increasingly important domain of educational thinking and practice.

The term brings an immediate response relating to environmental challenges and concerns, particularly human-induced climate change. This response is often directed by emotion, from well-intentioned knee-jerk reaction to fear-induced paralysis.

This is one area where we all probably agree we have achieved a reasonable degree of scientific literacy, so it is ironic that it has so far failed to galvanise any sustained action. The headlines in the media probably don’t help. Graphic imagery and frightful statistics from worst-case scenarios communicate unavoidable facts and press the idea of an environmental emergency. This may be necessary, but it can be dangerous.

Education is a prime ingredient in sustainability

We need to be made aware of key issues without feeling fearful and anxious. If the desired outcome is action, then we must be respectful of the wellbeing of potential actors to empower them. Where better to demonstrate this kind of knowledge-sharing and knowledge-creation than where it is already modelled daily? In our colleges.

It is becoming a cliché to say our students will be addressing UK and global sustainability challenges in the workplace. The trades and crafts they are learning will indeed be reshaped by that necessity. In fact, they will be reshaping them. But if we are to overcome this tendency to defer action, and to put the responsibility on young people themselves, we must ask ourselves: Who is responsible for civic leadership and the prioritisation of education for sustainable development?

The answer is both simple and complex: It is each and every one of us in the sector – lecturers, students, learning support assistants, college leaders, providers, apprentices, site staff and kitchen staff.

Education is a prime ingredient in sustainability; in challenging what is happening now and in establishing new ways of thinking and behaving that will stem from that. Central to Education for Sustainable Development are the principles of engagement, empowerment and ownership. We must accept the challenge, believe we can make a difference, and take action.

Progress is already being made within further education provider organisations through joint practice development and collaborative partnerships. Educators are working with employers to understand current industry practices. Staff and learners are working with a sense of agency. Leaders and managers are clearly sharing their vision, empowering others to act, and to taking ownership of experimental initiatives.

But this action is disjointed and piecemeal. “Think local, act global” is a recurring theme of ESD, but there is a difference between planned localism and fragmentation. Some guiding principles emerge in every college that begins on this journey, a sign that a common framework is already emerging.

That framework revolves around four Cs. Most colleges start with a curricular response, but quickly find that they cannot change curriculum in isolation. Quickly, it becomes evident that they must also reconsider campus, community and culture. What we learn can’t be separated from where, who with and how.

A fundamental attribute to each of these is respect. The new Ofsted framework leads us to consider curriculum. That is a fantastic opportunity for colleges to put sustainability at the heart of their teaching. The same framework highlights the importance of developing learners who have respectful behaviours. What better way to do that than to model that respect, by responding to their call for better care of our planet?