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Professor Charles Hopkins: Creating a Strategy Regarding Education and the Sustainable Development Goals

Fri 6th November 2015 - Sustainable Development Goals

Professor Charles Hopkins UNESCO Chair in ESD an advisor to UNESCO and UN University regarding the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD). He played major roles in both the Rio and Johannesburg UN Summits on Sustainability. He was an author of Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, the Rio Earth Summit Action Plan on Education, Public Awareness and training along with Scotland’s Prof John Smyth. Prof. Hopkins participates in meetings and conversations around the world about LfS and how to take it forward.

Following a week where Prof. Hopkins attended Scottish events, talks and seminars on the opportunities and challenges brought about by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we are delighted to launch the new blog platform with Professor Hopkins’ article, written exclusively for us. Here he shares his thoughts on:

Creating a Strategy Regarding Education and the Sustainable Development Goals

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s new Education First Initiative (EFI) could be a wonderful addition to the existing Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) efforts and related programmes, such as Scotland’s Learning for Sustainability (LfS). This is a wonderful opportunity to “think big” and build upon the international success of LfS. However, it also could become a divisive, and confusing distraction that slows the entire work. I say this only because of the number of similar and overlapping sustainability initiatives that are being asked of ministries, especially of education.

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not limited to developing countries but are to be addressed by all nations. To date, few OECD ministries have considered the SDGs as an internal issue but this should now change. Education including a specific mention to ESD is identified within the SDGs. It will take understanding of ESD and collaboration on the part of ministries, especially education, to meet the intent of the SDGs.

To add to the confusion, the SDGs are not the only new influences that the ministries of education need to address and coordinate with their existing initiatives. Also new and agreed upon by Governments are the Aichi-Nagoya Declaration (2014) and the Education 2030 Declaration, agreed to in Incheon, Korea (2015). Both Declarations address ESD and EFI so it is imperative to understand their similarities and uniqueness.

Similarities of Purpose

ESD has four components:

  • Access and retention in quality education
  • Reorienting existing education to address sustainability
  • Public awareness and understanding of sustainable development
  • Training and capacity building for sustainable practice

EFI has three main components:

  • Access to formal education
  • Improving the quality of education
  • Global Citizenship Education

So one can readily see that ESD and EFI have much in common. Their goals include using the world’s education systems in their entirety to create a more sustainable, just and environmentally sound world. Both begin with addressing access to formal education. Regarding ESD, Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, 1992, “Education, Public Awareness and Training,” speaks to this overarching role:

To endorse the recommendations arising from the World Conference on Education for All: Meeting Basic Learning Needs 2 (Jomtien, Thailand, 5-9 March 1990) and to strive to ensure universal access to basic education.

EFI’s first goal states:

First, putting every child in school. … We need to make all the necessary investments to ensure that every child has equal access to schooling.

Both also address improving the quality of education. The first goal of ESD has expanded from a focus on access to basic education during the 1990s to become access and retention in quality education. Similarly the second goal of EFI is:

Second, improving the quality of learning. Access to education is critical. But it is not enough. We must make sure that people acquire relevant skills to participate successfully in today’s knowledge-based society.

Both ESD and EFI call for reorienting education to address aspects of sustainable development. The second thrust of ESD is to reorient education systems to address sustainability. This means using all disciplines and all levels of formal education to repurpose education.

 As it’s third goal, EFI was also asked to reorient and add elements to foster global citizenship:

Education is much more than an entry to the job market. It has the power to shape a sustainable future and better world. Education policies should promote peace, mutual respect and environmental care.

Global Citizenship Education can help us refocus on the human issues that are resulting from natural disasters, climate change and human exploitation of one another. Refugee migrations, epidemics and changes in long-term weather patterns will increasingly test societies’ willingness to come to the aid of others.

Possible Confusion

The confusion comes from the need to see EFI as all three components and not just Global Citizenship Education. Many think of and even refer to EFI as only GCE. Many now feel GCE is not only the equivalent of ESD but also new and easier to comprehend. One is enticed to think of oneself as a global citizen and it is inspirational. ESD has never been easy to grasp. And while most educators can understand adding a new subject, they cannot fathom repurposing the entire education system itself. For ESD and EFI to be seen as similar, one must not limit EFI to Global Citizenship but also address access and retention in quality education in all nations as well as the extent to which education should be reoriented to address all sustainability threats.

The differences are largely in scope. EFI is largely aimed at formal primary and secondary schooling. ESD includes these but also has enlarged its mandate over the twenty plus years to address tertiary levels of formal education, as well as non-formal and informal education. In the new Global Action Programme on ESD, the follow-up to the UNDESD, this tertiary level is a crucial component as this is where most of the world’s future private and public sector leaders and shapers will emerge.

ESD also addresses its training mandate as seen through many aspects such as greening the workplace. This aspect of sustainability training engages many ministries such as employment, agriculture and manufacturing. Public awareness too is seen as a crucial ESD element enabling more sustainable production and consumption. These aspects are not highlighted in EFI.

Making it even more important for education ministers to get these initiatives aligned with existing programmes are the two declarations agreed upon in Aichi-Nagoya and Incheon. The Aichi-Nagoya Declaration on ESD asks governments to revisit and question their system’s purposes and underlying values to see if sustainability is addressed. The Declaration states:

INVITE governments of UNESCO Member States to make further efforts to:

  1. a) Review the purposes and values that underpin education, assess the extent to which education policy and curricula are achieving the goals of ESD; reinforce the integration of ESD into education, training, and sustainable development policies… and ensure the education, training and professional development of teachers and other educators to successfully integrate ESD into teaching and learning;

Time to grasp the opportunity

I feel this is a time to revitalise the current sustainability approaches by revisiting ESD and LfS programming through the added lens of EFI. Let us use this opportunity to expand upon Scotland’s global leadership in its existing LfS achievements. However, let us also use this occasion to think large. Let’s look at the biggest picture possible. Let’s tackle huge issues such as using LfS to truly address the big problems such as engaging all parts of Government in addressing national and regional sustainability issues. Let’s use LfS as an integral part of Scotland’s Strategic Objectives. Let’s use new inter-ministerial School and College programmes to overcome youth under-employment and reduce educational inequality and let’s not stop there. This opportunity begins with revisiting ESD and EFI and bringing clarity of both purpose and means to all our national learning programmes.

Professor Charles Hopkins, UNESCO Chair in ESD

November 2015