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Sustainable development in schools

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5528 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Brundtland Report (1987) defines sustainability as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The term sustainable development was crucial to move away from the traditional association of the natural environment of trees, flowers and animals, to one which incorporates also the social and economical aspects as highlighted by the Brundtland report. (>>>>>1987 p ??? >>>). Since the Brundtland report coined the word in 1987, the term started being used worldwide. Notwithstanding this, through our experiences and contacts with schools, the term was still ambivalent for some heads of schools and teachers. Speaking about sustainable development during our school visits, we frequently got the feeling that heads of school and teachers either did not know what it meant or used it interchangeably with environmental knowledge without distinguishing the difference. More often than not, a sustainable school for them was one that recycled waste and did not waste energy and water. The schools’ development plans and action plans of environmental committees were also focused on these issues, and, while the stakeholders felt the need to revert to other themes, they were at a standstill when deciding how to proceed. Misconceptions about sustainability were somewhat evident, and it was for this reason that we felt the need to produce a tool that would serve as guidelines to local schools. As argued further on (sect 4.10), private companies and businesses are promoting their products by claiming that they are sustainable companies. It is being used as a catchword to depict and promote responsibility and efficiency. A sustainability reporting tool for schools is aimed at guiding schools into adapting their attitudes and lifestyles whilst promoting their image. The introduction of Agenda 21, or its variants Local Agenda 21 and School Agenda 21, further emphasizes the necessity for organizations, companies and schools to be sustainable.

4.2 Education for sustainable development

Our work, and consequently our constant visits to schools, showed us that the issue of sustainability is not uniform in schools. On rare occasions, sustainability, and even the natural environment, were being ignored. In some instances we have also come across schools that actually implemented sustainable practices but were unaware of documents and policies that actually refer to sustainability. Other schools were following sustainable practices to the full, going into detail of how a school should be sustainable, and at the same time changing attitudes and school policies to adhere to the measures needed to be sustainable. The disparity between schools is creating an unbalance which is discriminating against the students. The exposure students have of sustainability is not equal in all schools. An equality standard should be created in our educational system to lead students on the same lines and expose them to practices which will change lifestyles both now as students and in the future as adults. A change in lifestyle is also a change in attitudes and practices which revolve around respect for the planet – in terms of the natural environment- and respect for others – where the social and cultural spheres are directly addressed. Documents related directly to education for sustainable development have long been published. “In December 2002, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted resolution 57/254 to launch the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), spanning from 2005 to 2014, and designated UNESCO to lead the Decade” (UNESCO, 2010, p.5). The DESD “breaks down the traditional educational scheme” (UNESCO 2010, p.5). The current educational system should addresses the issue of sustainability in a holistic way, rather than through particular subjects. This includes encouraging students to be critical towards the world around them and be involved in decision making. The EkoSkola programme is one instance where “Participatory decision-making” (UNESCO, 2010, p.5) is put into practice. Instances where schools are not running on sustainable grounds – and consequently are not involving students in the decision making process – are depriving the same students of learning opportunities that should be provided to all. Implementation should be on a national basis, and not left to the discretion of the head of school. Some educational institutions abroad have applied the DESD proposals in their curriculum framework. One example is the Australian Sustainability Curriculum Framework (Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA), 2010). Its policy of “a more sustainable future in terms of environmental integrity, economic viability, and a just society for present and future generations” (UNESCO Education Sector, 2005, p.5) reflects the principles outlined in the Brundtland report. The same curriculum states that sustainability equips students to act, individually and collectively, in ways that can contribute to society. It can also help them to understand the different cultures that exist worldwide and the need to respect diversity. Such principles should be present in all educational systems, and not sporadically here and there. They should also be implemented in schools like other academic subjects; in certain schools we noticed that sustainability is looked upon as an extra curricular theme, and not an essential tool for education.

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Adding environmental knowledge to curriculum content is not enough to educate towards sustainability. Research shows that there is no significant relation between environmental knowledge and behaviour. (Kuhlemeier et al 1999; Makki et al 2003, Negev et al 2008 as cited in Mifsud, 2009, p.39). Sustainability “is not just another issue to be added to an overcrowded curriculum” (Sterling 2004 as cited in Sterling 2009, p.20) but a lifestyle that should be made consistent in all spheres of life, especially schools.

This change in school culture has been proposed in Malta, “shifting from traditional schooling to a reengineered school culture” (Bezzina and Pace, 2004, p.37). Sustainable development – encompassing the environmental, social, economic and cultural dimensions – is part of the proposal of a “paradigm shift in their [directors and school governors] view of school governance by rethinking, reconceptualising and reassessing the nature of schooling” (Bezzina and Pace, 2004, p.37). The whole school approach as outlined by the EkoSkola programme involves all stakeholders in the school policy making. Being a by-product of Agenda 21, the same programme promotes sustainable development (FEE, n.d.). The schools enrolled in this programme are adopting participatory decision making as part of their school ethos. As stated by the National Commission for Sustainable Development:

“this international programme encourages students to adopt an active role in the environmental management of their school. Principles related to sustainable development are systematically weaved within the school’s management policy and internalised within the ethos of the whole school community.” (NCSD, 2006, p.55)

The Eco-Schools programme is currently spread in 47 countries around the world (Eco-Schools, n.d.). This worldwide participation in a programme that promotes sustainable issues as its basis, testifies a renewed interest of educational institutions in sustainable development.

4.3. Challenges

Encouraging sustainable principles in schools is no easy task. The challenges that heads of schools have to face are numerous. At times the first obstacle is convincing the head of school to actually believe that a sustainable school will actually make a difference. The general feeling tends to be that the goverment should make the first move, and others will follow. Simple practices of keeping clean and saving energy are sometimes ignored by the higher authorities, and double standards act as a critical challenge to educators. Even though international conferences have underlined the values of sustainable development, and local policies emphasize its importance, yet “sustainable development has only been given lip service and its slow implementation has been attributed to a general lack of political will to take bold and radical decisions towards its implementation.” (Pace, 2008, p.2)

Implementation of sustainable practices needs a radical change in behaviours and attitudes that is not easily achieved. We need to move away from practices that reflect selfishness rather than respect. Consumerism is a predominant mind set that reflects lack of respect for the planet and for others. Leading a comfortable lifestyle without reflecting on the consequences of the same lifestyle is common, and unfortunately these values are not being transmitted in schools. We often go to schools who, in the name of practicality, use disposable items in their social events. Students from the same schools often comment that the adults should know better. Education is not only a verbal medium to be taught in schools; it focuses mostly on a change in attitude. Inserting sustainable development as an academic subject will not make a difference unless a change in attitude is practiced by the same adults.

The same can be said of our attitude towards third world countries. A sustainable world is one that caters for everyone. Future generations, including foreign generations, have the right to access the earth resources as much as we do. The attitude of considering only the immediate environment and ignoring the situation in less fortunate countries prevails through our school visits. This can be said also of higher authorities, both locally and abroad, who do not give their contribution to poorer neighbours. In 2002, “more than 100 world leaders pledged, among other things to help eradicate poverty and to promote sustainable development [1] ” (Caruna 2008 p.4) . Commitment from high authorities were signed, but most of the promises have “remained unfulfilled” (Caruana 2008 p.4). Through our experience in schools, this poverty and aid issue is rarely if ever addressed. There have only been a few instances where students have either invited speakers to raise awareness on fair trade or organised sporadic activities to gather funds for third world countries. But, other than that, the idea of changing behaviours and everyday practices as a part of sustainable development leaves much to be desired. Sustainable development is still strongly bound to simple environmental awareness, leaving ample space for improvement.

4.4 Shifting from traditional themes and practices

“ESD is relevant to all environmental, cultural, economic and socio-political contexts and provides a concrete tool for addressing global sustainable challenges through education, taking into account regional specificities, challenges and priorities” (DESD, 2010, p.5). Some of the issues tackled, mostly concerning the environmental sphere, feature in the action plans of Maltese schools. Targeted themes revolve around health, waste, energy, water and occasionally animal awareness. The missing themes are mainly due to a lack of knowledge and awareness of what sustainable development entails.

Even though our school visits demonstrate that students are doing their utmost to ensure that the environment is being taken care of, yet the various aspects of sustainability are not being completely addressed, due to lack of information or misinformation, but mainly due to the difficulty in giving up or adjusting on the comfortable lifestyles we have become accustomed to. Apart from change in lifestyle, there is also the need of a change in attitude in the way policies are implemented. Schools are experiencing a shift in attitude because the same students are being involved in the decision making process. The whole school approach is influencing the way a school policy is being implemented. Involving the students in the decision making process is making a difference in the way policies are being taken on board; the ownership of the same policies is bringing about the desired culture. The same can be applied nationally. Involving civil society in general in the decision making process is crucial. Higher authorities perceive “civil society as a colleague and a partner in decision making rather than consider it as a client or a threat.” (Pace, 2008, p.3). The general public needs to be given reasons why actions and decisions are taken. An effective decision making process should include the direct participation of the public. “Sustainable development cannot thrive in a context where citizens feel more comfortable with having someone to decide, think and provide for them” (Pace, 2008, p.3). Responsibility in the decision making process goes against the laissez-faire attitude which currently prevails.

As already mentioned, the EkoSkola programme promotes the empowerment that would bring about the desired change. However, the same programme, together with others that promote environmental responsibility, are sometime inserted in the schools plans without a proper strategy. We have come across situations where the committee strives for sustainability but the rest of the students do not feel involved. We have also encountered situations where different students within the same school adhere to different environmental programmes with no link with each other. Unfortunately, situations where environmental issues ara addressed sporadically with no continuation or interlinking with each other still prevail. Our intentions for providing this tool to schools, apart from facilitating sustainability reporting, are to merge the various programmes currently available in schools and provide a framework where schools develop sustainably avoiding misconceptions.

4.5 Globalisation

The concept of globalisation needs to be further addressed in the local context as well. Even though the concept of “Think global, act local” is becoming more and more accepted, yet, “the often disparate nature of Environmental Education does not lend itself well for proactive coordination”(Caruana 2008, p.9). Areas like development, culture, migration, fair trade and agriculture, when addressed, are dealt with separately and more often than not, the lack of knowledge that educators have on these topics leads to inconsistencies that do not reflect sustainable practices. In order to depict as complete a picture of sustainability as possible, we tried to include as many variables as possible in the sustainability report we are presenting.

Caruana (2008) suggests creating alliances as one of the approaches that could work in schools. The idea of networking has been long introduced in schools, especially through the Comenius, eTwinning, Socrates and similar programmes. However, most of the times these are limited to EU countries, and, with the lack of technological advances in third world countries, the globalisation network is not being addressed. Committing oneself to increase awareness of the problems that the lack of sustainability is bringing to third world countries is a recommendable starting point for change. Lack of knowledge on the issue is reducing the commitment society has toward these countries. On various occasions, when mentioning the possibility of introducing and purchasing fair trade products in schools, both staff and students confirm their lack of knowledge on the issue. Instilling a sense of responsibility towards developing countries, and at the same time highlighting the real meaning of sustainability, is essential in the local educational system. As mentioned in the Context Analysis (sect 1.1?), the number of related local in-service courses is on the increase, but the actions are still sporadic and not linked. Developing a policy where schools promote sustainability in its widest sense is a must if the desired change is to be achieved. “Malta now has the challenge of developing a clear Education for Sustainable Development Policy that would address the educational needs of the formal, nonformal and informal sectors.” (NCSD 2006, p.54)

4.6 Education for sustainable development as a solution

The United Nations DESD (UNESCO Education Sector, 2005) aims to “promote the integration of the principles, values, and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning, in order to address the social, economic, cultural and environmental problems the world is facing in the 21st century” (UNESCO, 2010, p.2). In 2004, Elamé (as cited in Elamé 2010, p???) explained why the addition of the intercultural pillar is necessary for the full understanding of sustainable development, to create a better world enriched with sharing and the exchange of good practices. Elamé proposes that the role of cultural diversity needs to be valued more when considering sustainable development, especially in the present globalisation context. In this effect Elamé clearly explains that the most justified way to combine cultural diversity, economy, environment and society through dialogue, is the addition of a fourth pillar – intercultural responsibility. Yet, integrating these four pillars is no simple task for schools. “ESD enables all individuals to fully develop the knowledge, perspectives, values and skills necessary to take part in decisions to improve the quality of life both locally and globally on terms which are most relevant to their daily lives.” (UNESCO, 2010, p.2).

Schools should aim to achieve this end, namely developing and integrating the knowledge and skills to behave sustainably. Good practices that are ingrained at school are carried home. Situations where parents tell us that they recycle at home because their children tell them to are not rare. The outspill of schools towards society in general would bring about the much called change that is needed. The necessity of sustainable schools is unquestionable. UNESCO recognized that in order to strengthen education for sustainable development, it is necessary to adopt “suitable policies and well designed programmes”. This would entail the reinforcement of “abilities, competences and professional knowledge of teachers and educators” (UNESCO Education Sector, 2010, p.11).

4.7 The local situation

In Malta, the National Commission for Sustainable Development (NCSD, 2006) “was first established in the aftermath of United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), when the Maltese government, together with the governments of various other nations, committed itself to adopt a sustainable development strategy in order to “build upon and harmonise the various sectoral, economic, social and environmental policies and plans that are operating in the country” and to “ensure socially responsible economic development while protecting the resource base and the environment for the benefit of future generations.” Governments agreed also that the strategy should “be developed through the widest possible participation” and “based on a thorough assessment of the current situation and initiatives”” (Agenda 21, 1993 as cited in NCSD, 2006, p.5)

“In September 2000, some 150 Heads of State, including Malta, signed the Millennium Declaration and reaffirmed their support for the principles of sustainable development and Agenda 21. They also agreed on the Millennium Development Goals, including the need to ‘integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources’.” (Millennium Development Goal 7 as cited in NCSD, 2006, p.5).

The National Strategy for Sustainable Development, drafted by Briguglio et al. (NCSD, 2006) included consultation with government ministries, departments and agencies, and the general public to ensure ownership of the same document. The lack of implimentation of the same strategy leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The proposals of the same document would have changed drastically the local situation if they had been put into force. The lack of commitment from higher authorities is certainly not helping schools to do their share in the sustainability process. Educating both students and adults is fundumental if change is called for.

In the consultation process it was emphasised that “education is central to the issue of sustainability” (NCSD, 2006, p.53), with emphasis on the “values, skills and competencies”(NCSD 2006, p.53) that need to be addressed in the local educational system. Going beyond “awareness raising”, which should be the starting point, education for sustainable development should focus on “commitment to action.” (NCSD, 2006, p.53). According to UNESCO, the objective of such education is “the promotion of values and ethics through education at different levels in order to make an impact on people’s lifestyles and behaviour and help to build a sustainable future.” (NCSD 2006, p.53). With this statement being quoted in a local document, it highlights the necessity to devise ways and means of helping local schools make a strategic plan to run on sustainable principles. As mentioned before, this was lacking in the local scenario, and a set of guidelines is necessary to help schools focus in the right direction. The NCSD expresses the need to integrate sustainable development with other fields of education “in an integrative approach” (NCSD 2006 p.54). The curriculum has seen an increase in the number of subjects that incorporate sustainability in their topics, such as Social Studies, Science, Geography, Environmental Studies, Home Economics, Design and Technology and Environmental Science. However, “the approach tends to be one of providing environmental information, and the fostering of pro-sustainability values is not always given due importance in educational programmes.” (NCSD, 2006, p.54). Mifsud (2008) also sustains that efforts in environmental education are still aimed mainly at providing environmental information (as cited in Mifsud, 2009, p.41). Research and evaluation into the effectiveness of Environmental Education programmes in achieving pro environmental behaviour should be enhanced in order to develop programmes, methodologies and curricular material that can attain this aim (Leff, 1997 as cited in Mifsud, 2009, p.41).

4.8 Sustainable schools

Unfortunately, in the physical design of schools, sustainability has not always been taken into account. A physically sustainable school would be one where

the dependency on fossil fuels for heating and lighting is reduced

alternative methods of transport (other than car) are encouraged

school grounds encourage bio diversity

water demand is reduced and a sustainable drainage system is identified

materials are responsible sourced and recycling and reusing materials is practiced.

(Department for Education and Skills, 2006, p.10)

Locally, research on current practices is not available. Through school visits, we have identified both good and bad practices. A policy that implements sustainable buildings is still needed, because although policies have been published, implementation is still lacking.

Instances of good practices have been observed and encouraged, including a case where students were consulted before the actual building of the extension of the school was carried out. The Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools (FTS) within the portfolio of the Ministry of Education, Employment and the Family has the objectives to

“(a) develop and manage sustainable and economically viable alternative systems that finance and manage the construction, refurbishment, and maintenance of schools and their operation; and

(b) ensure that its activities are consonant with the educational policies and strategies of the Ministry responsible for Education.” (FTS, 2001, p.1)

Also, in March 2007, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) approved and published the Development and Control Policy and Design Guidelines 2007 (DC, 2007) in which:

“The main objective of this Guidance is to promote the creation of high quality development, which is visually attractive and appropriate to its surroundings. In this way, it is one of the implementation ‘tools’ that the Authority will use to improve and safeguard the environment, and to help achieve sustainable development.”

Apart from the physical aspects, a sustainable school is one that includes the social, cultural and economic pillar in its practices. “A school that does not meet the needs of its community will not be sustainable” (Department for Education and Skills, 2006, p.10). Stakeholder involvement is essential in all aspects of school management – both physical and related to the curriculum. The surrounding community is also directly linked to the school, both as contributors and as receivers. As will be explained further on, the school, being part of the village/town where it is situated, can be an essential contributor to the community. Their direct involvement ensures that no one is left out of the sustainability process.

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The financial aspect of sustainable schools is also fundumental. “Measures that are not economic are also unsustainable” (Department of Education and Skills, 2006, p.10) We have witnessed situations in schools where sustainable practices and projects were beyond the economic threshold and hence discarded, while others persisted and managed to obtain the necessary funds. Sustainable schools can be affordable if planned appropriately. A global approach to sustainability is essential in our schools. They are the institutions that transmit both the knowledge and the attitudes necessary to bring about change, and at the same time be an example to the surrounding community.

4.9 The Global Reporting Initiative

Promoting sustainable institutions requires some form of policy making and standard setting. For this reason, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) was set up. “The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is a large network of thousands of experts, in dozens of countries worldwide, whose mission is to provide the global standards for sustainability reporting” (GRI, 2007, p. 1). The guidelines of the same GRI are not aimed specifically to schools or business, but to organizations in general, and can be adopted on a voluntary basis. Procedures consist of guidelines for companies to declare their principles and report what they are doing to promote sustainability. Those organizations that opt to adhere to the GRI framework will get an internationally recognized credit for their actions. This standardisation method is becoming increasingly popular, especially with industries who want to promote their image and practices. Not the same can be said, however, of schools, where none were found to practice sustainability reporting or follow the GRI guidelines.

Locally, we have found instances where school stakeholders such as the local councils invest in sustainable practices in order to promote the principles adopted by the same council. However, an accredited reporting system was still lacking. Drawing up a sustainability report seems to be still at the end of the priority list. “Sustainability reports based on the GRI Reporting Framework disclose outcomes and results that occurred within the reporting period in the context of the organization’s commitments, strategy, and management approach.” (GRI, 2000, p.4). There have been various instances where practices and initiatives by both schools and local councils followed the GRI principles, but still did not revert to report it. The GRI report, apart from giving guidelines on how to be sustainable, would internationally recognise an institution in its practices. Promoting schools in this direction is important to create a balance in schools procedures. Our sustainability report is intended to promote the GRI guidelines in schools and give credited reporting system where it is still lacking.

The GRI includes an “ongoing process”, and “does not begin or end with a written report” (Gotanda, 2010, slide 9). It is a”cycle of engagement” (Gotanda, 2010, slide 9) that re starts once it is finished, creating a cycle that promotes progression over time. The GRI Sustainability Reporting Guidelines (2000) describe how to report and what to report, and help in the procedures that need to be followed. Schools often ask us on the way forward, but have never referred to standard international procedures available. Either due to misinformation or to apathy, the GRI principles have, to date, never been applied to schools. The challenges of reporting are various, and are obviously considered when embarking on producing such a report. Once embarking on reporting, a company or other entity, feels bound to produce reliable quantitative measurements over time. Failing to do so would show a lack of standard in the same organisation. Should an organisation decrease its sustainability measures, it would be exposed to the stakeholders. Reporting a negative performance is not enticing; setting goals that may be difficult to achieve may be a challenge which is not welcomed by all companies. The same can be applied to schools. Greater transparency is required. Organisations, be they companies or schools, need to ensure consistency between voluntary reporting and other mandatory legal reporting obligations. Productive stakeholder engagement is also required, while securing organizational commitment at all levels becomes necessary too.

4.10 Examples of sustainability reporting

Notwithstanding the challenges for companies related to sustainability reporting, numerous companies all over the world are opting for this accreditation. One particular company in Malta has invested in sustainability reporting and developed its expenditure on sustainable grounds. When interviewed, the same company claimed that certification “has been possible due to the continuous commitment of top management and employee motivation to implement the Environment management system.” (Fenech, 2010)

Companies use the GRI as a selling point to customers. Proclaiming oneself as a sustainable company reassures the consumers who want to adhere to sustainable practices. Schools also have the possibility to expose their sustainable practices to the general public, but lack of reporting is failing to do this, and a lot of work is left unexposed.

A foreign company documents its initiatives and boasts an “open door policy” (APRIL, 2002, p.3) for any type of verification. “Our commitment therefore goes beyond concern for the physical environment and requires the insistent need for our resources also to enhance the education, skills and employment opportunities within our communities” (APRIL, 2002, p.5). Many schools adopt these principles of concern for the environment and involvement in the community. Sustainability is being inserted in the school SDPs and mission statements, so why not revert to reporting the aims achieved?

“The GRI suggests that a sustainability report should stand up to external verification” (APRIL 2002 p.6). This ensures that the company is being loyal to the guidelines outlined by the same GRI. Here again, schools would need the same procedure in order to acquire international verification. The designed sustainability report for schools also includes an external assessor. As described in section????, the assessor will guide the schools and help them progress on sustainable grounds.

Private businesses have reported progress in their companies due to the reporting system. One particular company “announced significantly increased targets for its 2012 sustainability goals in recognition of the company’s marked progress and ongoing commitment to continuous improvement” (P&G, 2009b)

Similar examples of companies are encouraging others to voluntarily adopt new management strategies to meet t


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