Education for sustainable development (ESD)

The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) recognises the vital role the Further Education (FE) and Training sector has to play in combating climate change and achieving sustainability and social justice both nationally and globally.

Our approach is 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.

What is sustainable development?

The most widely accepted definition is 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 implementation of the achievement of the goals lies in leveraging interactions between then away from trade-offs and towards co-benefits, from vicious to virtuous circles.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted many of the SDGs – health, inequalities and the impact of the virus on decent work and economic growth have understandably become priorities in the public narrative as well as in Government action. There’s also been calls for the post-pandemic policy arena to also focus on ‘building back better’, using the crisis as a springboard for action that not just look at the short term impacts of COVID-19, but also how we can achieve longer term goals too.

Climate action and net-zero carbon emissions is arguably at the top of this list with society and industry calling for the UK post-pandemic recovery plan to be interwoven with that which enables the UK to lead and benefit from embracing the climate action agenda, placing clean growth and net zero greenhouse gas emissions targets at the heart of our economic recovery. The Government has responded to this through the ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, the Net Zero Strategy and pro-sustainability amendments to the forthcoming Skills Bill.

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.  

The World Economic Forum suggests that the highest-demand skills in emerging and growing sectors span both technical and cross-functional skills. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has recently published a conceptual framework for learner outcomes, the learning compass, aiming to create a common language around broad educational goals that is globally relevant and informed, while providing space to adapt the framework to local contexts.

The Green Jobs Taskforce was established last year to set the direction for the job market to enable the transition to a high-skill, low carbon economy. It published its recommendations to the education and skills sector as well as industry and Government last month. It believes all jobs can be green jobs and amongst its recommendations said that education providers should promote the effective teaching of climate change and the knowledge and skills (in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and other key subjects) required for green jobs. 

Join the ESD mailing list

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

Podcast: Experiences of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in the FE and Training sector

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 increase our ESD offer for the sector. Things we’re currently working on include:

  • Developing an ESD for educators CPD programme and series
  • Embedding ESD within the forthcoming revision of the Minimum Core for initial teacher education and the forthcoming revisions of the sector’s Professional Standards
  • 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 Green Apprenticeship Advisory Community and the Climate Education and Skills Group
  • Supporting providers across the sector engage their leadership teams and staff bodies in ESD
  • Guest editing an ESD special edition of the Education + Training journal.