Let’s embed education for sustainable development (ESD) in teaching and training

16 May 2021, 6:00

To have a hope of meeting the government’s green goals, education for sustainable development needs to be embedded in apprenticeships and staff training, writes Charlotte Bonner

Last week saw the publication of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE)’s sustainability framework. This document helps employer trailblazer groups, who are responsible for developing apprenticeship standards, identify how different occupations can achieve sustainability goals and particularly net-zero carbon.

To meet the UK’s ambitious decarbonisation plans, we’ll need specialist expertise: in renewable energy systems and batteries, sustainable agriculture and food system, circular economy principles, zero-carbon construction and so on.

As well as these specialist occupations, we must remember that all jobs can and should be green jobs. We need people across all industries to be knowledgeable and ready to make sustainability the norm – from healthcare to project management to marketing to catering.

With this in mind, if we’re going to fully equip our learners for their future jobs and careers, all learners can and should be green learners.

IfATE’s sustainability framework recognises this. It uses a “shades of green” spectrum to identify that all apprenticeships are affected by the sustainability agenda but in different ways.

The framework also supports trailblazer groups to build appropriate sustainability outcomes into the apprenticeship development and revisions process.

In addition to the framework, IfATE has established a green apprenticeship advisory panel.

This panel will help ensure the portfolio of occupational standards reflects the roles needed to achieve sustainability goals.

This approach is a signal of how the further education and training sector is moving towards greater uptake of education for sustainable development (ESD). It is particularly welcome as it could be the key that unlocks one of the biggest barriers FE educators face in bringing more ESD to their work.

The ETF will soon publish research with responses from nearly 850 members of the FE workforce.

There is a lack of relevant content in the curriculum and occupational standards 

Our research will show that a lack of relevant content in the curriculum and occupational standards is the greatest factor preventing them from including sustainability issues in their teaching and work.

IfATE’s framework use is currently advisory rather than obligatory. If embraced by trailblazer groups, it could ensure new and future curricula used by apprenticeship providers will enable the inclusion of sustainability issues. As such, educators and other sector professionals should no longer face this barrier.

Meanwhile, new curricula need to be accompanied by investment in educators so they have the competency, capacity and confidence to embed education for sustainable development across the apprentice’s learning experience.

That’s why at the ETF, as the expert body for professional development and standards in FE, we’re working with other sector bodies to develop our ESD strategy.

We want to design, develop and deliver continuous professional development for staff in different roles from across the sector to support ESD uptake.

We’re introducing ESD modules into our existing portfolio of professional development – from our governance and leadership programmes to our practitioner research programmes.

We’re developing new specialist ESD CPD, including an online course, curriculum mapping tools and resources for practitioners from different subject specialisms.

Those in our membership body, the Society for Education and Training, can access an on-demand webinar, which I ran with teaching methods expert Geoff Petty on effective teaching practice for ESD.

Education is an enabler. It can be a lever to help achieve sustainability goals. Apprentices need to be developing relevant knowledge, skills, values and agency as core competencies so they can create positive change in their lives and their work whether they go on to be sustainability specialists or not.

There’s growing recognition of this and a groundswell of interest from practitioners and providers across the country. To support these practitioners and providers, and achieve FE’s full ESD potential, sector bodies will need to embed ESD in their work too.

The FE sector has a vital role to play in combating climate change and achieving sustainability and social justice both nationally and globally.

Initiatives such as IFATE’s show that central leadership can incentivise and enable uptake of education for sustainable development, by supporting those involved. Hopefully, others will follow.



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  1. Richard Masters

    Learning for Sustainable Development should be used to underpin ALL learning in future and globally. It is not just about Apprenticeships, STEM or primarily about reducing CO2. If we use all 17 UN Sustainability Development Goals then this will open up ESD to every student of whatever discipline and best of all many of the required learning resources are continually being generated all the time in the real world.

  2. Lynn Hart

    Good to see this being considered and driven, but ‘tokenisation’ by bolting on ‘content’ may well appear, rather like the early days of ‘embedding functional skills and will do little to influence pro-conservation behaviours abs therefore have impact, particularly in a consumerist world. Colleges and training providers need to role model sustainable practices across every part of the business, from supply / procurement and operational sustainability through to recycling and food waste, and beyond! A circular economy approach across all aspects of education is needed with those responsible understanding behavioural change models as well as environmental sustainability as delivering content alone does not lead to pro conservation behaviours in human-beings. Teachers will need to draw on expertise from specialist and will need to be current and connected to sustainable advancements within their respective industries / sectors. Awarding bodies will rapidly need to update assessment criteria, ensuring this features in the intended and enacted curriculum.
    Importantly, if sustainability is not taught from the very earliest opportunity in schools (primary),then by the time students hit FE, habits and behaviours formed can be difficult to influence.