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.

We are working to support the sector’s adoption of education for sustainable development (ESD) to enhance teaching, learning, assessment and leadership.

Our approach is to:

  • Weave 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.

Things we’re currently working on include: 

  • Developing a new ESD module for our Governance Development Programme 
  • Developing tools for teaching and learning practitioners including a curriculum mapping tool and a resource showing different ways of bringing ESD into your teaching and learning practice across 35+ subject specialisms
  • Preparing the results of an audit of ESD within the current FE curriculum alongside a number of case studies showcasing existing leadership in the field, so we can publish these to the sector and use them to inform future leadership development work 
  • Supporting the Regional Specialist Leads for English and Maths to discuss ESD with their networks 
  • Embedding ESD within the forthcoming revision of the Minimum Core for initial teacher education
  • 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 COP 26 Education and Skills Committee. 

For more information about our ESD work, please contact

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, 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.

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.  

There’s a lot of debate about the precise set of learner outcomes required but broadly we’re talking about critical thinking skills, interdisciplinarity, the ability to bring about change, a connection to nature, systems thinking, global citizenship perspectives and collaborative problem solving.

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.

Back in November 2020, the UK government published an ambitious Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution which will create and support up to 250,000 high-skilled jobs. The £12bn plan is the most overt national sustainability commitment since the 2008 Climate Change Act and focuses on building back better: to invest in making the UK a global leader in green technologies, supporting green jobs, and accelerating the UK’s path to net zero emissions. 

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. 

Resources #ESDinFE

Leadership for ESD in the FE curriculum report

The ETF’s latest report on Leadership for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in FE Curriculum helps us better understand the challenges curriculum leaders face in embedding sustainability across their education provision. It also showcases those who are already working to ensure their learners develop the relevant skills, knowledge, behaviours and agency to help them contribute positively to sustainability goals through numerous case studies.

Experiences of ESD in FE: A workforce survey report

We surveyed over 800 teachers, trainers and leaders in the FE and training sector to better understand their experiences of, and attitudes towards, ESD. The results will inform the ETF’s strategy to support the sector’s adoption of ESD to enhance teaching, learning, assessment and leadership. The report also provides sector practitioners, providers and stakeholders data with which to plan their own ESD approaches.

ESD resources for ESOL practitioners

A collection of resources for ESOL practitioners for a wide range of learners and lesson types that has been developed and tested by ESOL practitioners. These were commissioned by the ETF, delivered by HOLEX and developed by Manchester Adult Education Service, Idea Store at Tower Hamlets Council and Westminster Adult Education Service.

Other resources 

We’re developing various resources and CPD to help teachers, trainers and others from the sector in their current professional practice, developing their understanding of how to bring ESD into their pedagogic and business approaches. Whilst this work is in development, we recommend the following resources.

Developed by the Climate Commission for UK Higher and Further Education and Nous Group, this resource provides clear actions and guidance on how colleges can respond to the climate emergency and advance sustainability. It encourages a strategic, whole-institution approach and would be suitable for many other types of organisation in the sector beyond colleges.

Developed by UNESCO, this resource is a guide for education professionals on the use of ESD in learning for the SDGs, and consequently to contribute to achieving the SDGs. The guide identifies indicative learning objectives and suggests topics and learning activities for each SDG in a non-prescriptive way meaning educators can adapt its contents to suit their learning contexts and environments.

Developed by the National Union of Students, this resources showcases good practice in the incorporation of sustainability in a wide range of UK further and higher education courses. It provides inspiration of how ESD can be embedded well into a breath of courses including those you may not immediately associate with the sustainable development agenda.


In the sector press/thought pieces

  • Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA) ‘Greening the news’ podcast

    Listen to the sixth episode ‘The Job Market and Green Skills’ hosted by the IEMA CEO Sarah Mukherjee where Charlotte Bonner talks about the recent news regarding job market recovery and what this means for the younger generation who around the world have suffered disproportionately higher levels of unemployment and the green skills initiative that the UK government is implementing.