Education for sustainable development (ESD)

The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) recognises the vital role the Further Education (FE) and Skills sector has to play in combating climate change and achieving sustainability and social justice, both nationally and globally. We work to equip and enable the sector to deliver great quality, high-impact education for sustainable development (ESD).

Our vision is for:

  • The teachers, leaders, trainers and professional staff who work in the FE and Training sector to meet society’s sustainability needs through education
  • All learners to become sustainability learners
  • The sector to provide the ‘green jobs pipeline’, developing specialist sustainability skills which enable sustainability goals to be met
  • Everyone who works in the sector to be well equipped to embed ESD in their subject
  • ESD to be inclusive, for everyone

Our approach

ETF’s ESD strategy has four objectives. We are working to:

  • Weave education for sustainable development (ESD) through our CPD and SET offers
  • Develop new specialist ESD support including CPD and resources
  • Work collaboratively with others from across the sector to create a more enabling environment for ESD
  • Understand, scrutinise and improve our own organisation’s sustainability impacts

You can find our more about our progress against these objectives in our latest Trustees’ report.

What is sustainable development?

The most widely accepted definition of sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is a pretty radical concept as not yet in human history have we met the full needs of the present let alone those of future generations too.

Although they’re not without criticism, the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), adopted by 193 countries, are a useful tool for further exploring sustainable development. They clearly and simply demonstrate the breadth of sustainability, acting as an entry-point and helping people identify the links between their objectives or subject matter and the issues central to sustainability. Sub-indicators and targets on all 17 goals reference education, so they also help educators see their role in working towards their realisation.

The SDGs are interconnected and cover environmental, social and economic issues as well as highlighting the need for partnerships and collaboration. Rather than look at one issue in isolation, the SDGs focus on how improvements in one area can help others and how improvements in some areas can have knock-on negative impacts for other goals.

The key to the achievement of the goals lies in leveraging interactions between them away from trade-offs and towards co-benefits, from vicious to virtuous circles.

What is education for sustainable development?

UNESCO are one of the major enablers of ESD globally. They define ESD as

“[empowering] 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.”

The skills gap in relation to sustainability was identified over a decade ago, and has been discussed by various groups and stakeholders since.

There’s a difference between education about sustainable development and education for sustainable development. Both are important – the former helps develop specialists in sustainability, but we also need the latter, ensuring that all learners have the knowledge, skills, values and attributes to create a more just and sustainable world. This is not to say that all learners should have an expert knowledge of all the areas of sustainable development, but instead that learners have sustainable development knowledge, skills, values and attributes as a core competency and they understand how their subject area interrelates with sustainable development and can contribute to its realisation and have the values and agency required to act upon that knowledge.

ESD equips students with new knowledge but also new ways of thinking – the onus being on the need to promote learning skills that are resilient to change and are future-proofed.   

Join the ESD mailing list

Keep up to date with ETF’s ESD work, including announcements when new resources, tools and support are launched.

The pages below link to the resources, research and thought pieces already available.

Teacher presenting in front of a class


Tools to enable you to bring ESD into your professional practice

Students learning during the pandemic


Insights and case studies about the ESD landscape in the FE and Training sector

Delegates at conference

ESD in the sector press

Thought pieces in different media formats to help you further explore ESD

What are we currently working on?

This is a fast-moving landscape and we’re working at pace to enhance our ESD offer for the sector. Things we’re currently working on include:

  • Delivering the third CPD series for educators on ‘Embedding education for sustainable development’
  • Developing a new series of ESD technical webinars and resources for sector leaders
  • Developing a new ESD guide for FE and Skills sector governors
  • Collating case studies of effective ESD practice
  • Seeking funding to invest in the development of ESD CPD for educators and leaders across the sector
  • Contributing to various sector groups such as the National Climate Education Action Plan, Green Apprenticeship Advisory Community, the Climate Education and Skills Group, and the Department for Education’s International Green Skills Conference steering group
  • Supporting providers across the sector to engage their leadership teams and staff bodies in ESD

If you’re looking for support or tools to enhance your ESD work and can’t find them, please get in touch – we’ll either signpost you to what’s available or use your suggestions to inform our work.