Learning for Sustainability in Scotland: a work in progress
Vision 2030+ is a new Education Scotland report that sets out the vision for Learning for Sustainability in Scotland’s schools to 2030. Rob Bushby, manager of the John Muir Award, finds out what it means for Outdoor Learning.
First, the good news. The lead commitment in Vision 2030+ - ‘All learners should have an entitlement to Learning for Sustainability’ - means that this entitlement is effectively embedded in education policy in Scotland through to 2020.
Outdoor Learning is front and centre, Recommendation 1 no less: ‘Progressive and curriculum-led approaches to outdoor learning should continue to be promoted’. That’s an open door to jump through. Such statements from Scottish Government and its agencies give opportunities for leverage with politicians, policy makers and purse-string holders. And they’re the envy of educators outside Scotland.
The key tenets of Learning for Sustainability (LfS) are a thread running not only through this report’s reflections, but its recommendations too. Introduced in a 2012 report, LfS weaves together three strands - sustainable development education, outdoor learning, global citizenship - into a unifying vision of learning. It’s both a concept and a learning process. All 31 report recommendations were accepted in March 2013 by Scottish Ministers: this concluding report outlines progress, and sets out ‘what next’.
Five strategic priorities initially identified in 2012 ‘remain valid and useful’ and offer continued focus through to 2020. Besides the significant commitments for learners, ‘Every practitioner, school and education leader should demonstrate LfS in their practice’. There should be a ‘whole school approach’ that’s demonstrable and evaluated; school buildings and grounds should be utilised; and a strategic national approach (involving Scottish Government, Education Scotland and key stakeholders) should maintain momentum.
It’s welcome to have the landscape for this agenda clearly set out. LfS is shown to sit at the heart of a map of 30+ Scottish Government policies, with ‘opportunities to deliver meaningfully on the educational aspects of many different policy areas’. What’s advocated is a ‘centrally co-ordinated approach to implementation, using LfS as a focus where relevant and appropriate [to] prevent a piecemeal, ‘policy by policy’ response’.
In particular, notes the report, ‘consider the role LfS can play in new and existing programmes such as the Scottish Attainment Challenge, National Improvement Framework, Developing Our Young Workforce, and the work to deliver on the OECD recommendations’ (Recommendation 3). The message is clear. These are the educational and political drivers: engage with these or be peripheral.
More recognition is urged to show the added value of LfS to enable improvements to literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, as part of the drive to raise attainment and tackle inequity.
The report stresses the long-term commitment needed for cultural change, for meaningful implementation. It ties the work to UN Global Goals – the ‘Vision 2030’ of the title:
‘We would like to impress upon all those involved in education of the importance of continuing to support this work and taking forward these actions. We must guard against a box-ticked, short-term approach which could see important gains and opportunities being squandered. The scale of the undertaking, to address the Sustainable Development [Global] Goals and particularly to ‘learn our way’ towards a sustainable future, is considerable and requires long-term, sustained commitment.’
The collaborative approaches of local authorities and many third sector organisations and networks that have embraced the LfS agenda are recognised:
‘…the passion, leadership and professional values and actions of practitioners and school leaders across Scotland [and] their commitment to embedding LfS in the curriculum is helping to nurture a generation of children and young people who know and value the natural world. They are also committed to the principles of social justice, human rights, global citizenship, democratic participation and living within the ecological limits of our planet.’
Partnership working, openness and common values are noted as a ‘hugely encouraging’ factor in progressing the LfS agenda. Looking ahead, ‘The combined expertise, reach and capacity of these organisations and networks, aligned to the vision of LfS, will be a powerful vehicle for change as we enter the next phase’. This might be essential to keep the LfS fire burning. Despite the urging of the National Implementation Group to support and resource LfS – to maintain its positive impact on children and young people, and keep Scotland ‘at the vanguard of global change’ – it’s not yet clear what this support is and where additional resource might come from to fully harness this collaborative effort.
The Executive Summary reports ‘greater confidence; increased readiness and motivation to learn; increased attainment; progression in social, critical thinking and communication skills…LfS significantly enhances relationships, the sense of community spirit, parental engagement and the reputation of their establishment. Staff too report that their learning and teaching has been reinvigorated and that staff wellbeing and attendance has improved – all as a result of adopting LfS approaches’.
Appendix 1 collates a range of actions towards the 2012 recommendations. Whilst these have been usefully captured under a ‘LfS’ banner, demonstrating its breadth of application, it can be argued that much of this would have happened anyway. Many actions contribute to, rather than result from, the emergence of ‘LfS approaches’. There’s also a limited rather than comprehensive Outdoor Learning element, with its full spectrum (e.g. residential and more adventurous activity) not fully represented.
Further significant developments include: the embedding of LfS in the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) Professional Standards; the publication by Education Scotland of How Good is Our School 4? which secures LfS within the framework for self-evaluation and self-improvement; and the passing of the Children and Young People’s Act (Scotland) 2014 which enshrines in the education system enhanced duties in relation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
Outdoor Learning in the mix
There’s a risk of Outdoor Learning approaches being squeezed out of a ‘sustainability’ narrative that on occasion reverts to a narrow and exclusive interpretation. It’s contradictory, for example, to equate LfS with education for sustainable development, ‘the term generally used by the United Nations’ (p21). There’s scope to highlight the role of adventurous and residential experiences in the full spectrum of Outdoor Learning approaches. Practitioners and networks can do more to show the potential to deliver, particularly in relation to learners’ entitlement to LfS (Recommendations 1-4), supporting the new General Teaching Council Scotland Professional Standards, and making best use of school surroundings.
That said, the aspiration for Outdoor Learning to make a significant contribution to a culture of high quality learning and teaching is explicit – and inspiring. The report talks of effective 3-18 progression across all sectors, and all learners having daily contact with nature. The vision for schools that are ‘the beating hearts of vibrant, happy, healthy and sustainable communities’ in 2030 includes the following:
‘…the outdoor learning experiences that were embedded within Curriculum for Excellence will have borne much fruit. Our young people will have a love for nature and will marvel at our magnificent landscapes and sea-scapes. They will have a marvellous sense of their place in the natural world and they will seek the outdoors regularly for adventure, discovery, recovery, leisure, work, exercise and enjoyment.
Scotland will have the cleanest rivers, streets and air to breathe because our young people, through their citizen science and environmental volunteering activities, will have worked hard to protect their local and national environment.’
Work in progress
The National Implementation Group offers a refreshingly frank stocktake. It notes ongoing challenges to:
- promote awareness of LfS as a concept and process so it is universally understood
- take LfS forward at a time of financial constraint with growing pressures on staff at school level and system leaders at local and national level
- embed LfS in professional review and development (PRD) processes at school level or through self-evaluation.
- ensure that LfS is not crowded out of school, local and national improvement plans due to other priorities and initiatives.
Crucially, there’s a disconnect between the strategic prioritisation of LfS, and how it’s interpreted by teachers (‘many may not be using the term LfS as yet’). The key challenge for this next phase is to make the concept real, and show its value - for teachers, pupils and education leaders. The 12 new recommendations need to be interpreted as robust actions that focus on this, with clear ownership and outcomes. They need to explicitly contribute to wider agendas such as the National Improvement Framework vision (attainment and equity). They need to be firmly located in the Education Scotland Business Plan, and relevant actions need to be built into a schools’ inspection model.
So, while it’s a concept at constant risk of tripping over its own terminology; while it’s an approach of such breadth that its central proposition isn’t yet widely embraced; while it’s not yet found its place in relation to significant new policy drivers; and while it’s not yet clear where the capacity will come from to harness the activity that will deliver the recommendations of the report, there is much here to celebrate and get behind. ‘Entitlement’. ‘Embed’. These commitments have value. And if we still need to explore how to capitalise on LfS and the role of Outdoor Learning, its ambition for Scotland to be ‘the best nation in the world for children to grow and develop’ can’t be faulted.
‘Scotland’s progress and achievements in relation to LfS are increasingly being recognised on an international stage. We must continue to support and resource LfS first and foremost because of the positive impact it has on our children and young people, but also because Scotland has the opportunity to be at the vanguard of global change. By striving for all our learners to receive their entitlement to learning for sustainability this small nation can lead the charge to a better world for all.’
 Key strategic recommendations from the Learning for Sustainability Report (2012)
1. All learners should have an entitlement to learning for sustainability
2. In line with the new GTCS Professional Standards, every practitioner, school and education leader should demonstrate learning for sustainability in their practice
3. Every school should have a whole school approach to learning for sustainability that is robust, demonstrable, evaluated and supported by leadership at all levels
4. All school buildings, grounds and policies should support learning for sustainability
5. A strategic national approach to supporting learning for sustainability should be established
 National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education - achieving excellence and equity, January 2016
 Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development Review Team evaluated implementation of Curriculum for Excellence in 2015
 UN Global Goals: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched in September 2015, set out a seventeen-point global action plan to end poverty, combat climate change and fight injustice and inequality. In particular, Education Goal 4.7 will provide crucial forward momentum for the LfS agenda in Scotland, building on all that has been achieved over the course of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development which concluded in December 2014…’Securing the entitlement of every learner to LfS within Curriculum for Excellence needs to be seen as the means through which we realise SDG Goal 4.7 and contribute to the educational aspects within the other goals.’
 The 2016 launch of the resource ‘Whole school and community approach to Learning for Sustainability self-evaluation and improvement framework’ is closely aligned to HGIOS 4.