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Learning for Sustainability: Addressing the climate/nature emergency through Scottish schools

Wed 19th June 2024 - Blog Posts, Communities, Further and Higher Education, News, Schools and early learning & childcare settings, Sustainable Development Goals

The following article was published on page 16 of the Spring 2024 edition of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s magazine. In it, Professor Pete Higgins from The University of Edinburgh and Learning for Sustainability Scotland shares his thoughts on Learning for Sustainability in Scotland’s schools.

Long before the recent reviews of Scottish schooling, the Scottish Government established an advisory group to make recommendations on how ‘sustainability’ could become part of school-life. This led to policy guidance on ‘Learning for Sustainability’ (LfS) in 2012 which was subsequently integrated with the UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2016.

The recommendations were accepted by a range of ministers in successive governments, and essentially commit to a ‘whole school approach’ with LfS being an entitlement of all learners and a professional responsibility of all education professionals including teachers.  The concept, unlike other national approaches, weaves together ‘education for sustainable development’, ‘global citizenship education’, and ‘outdoor learning’. In recent years the significance of the ‘nature emergency’ and importance of ‘social justice’ have come to the fore and are integrated in the concept. ‘Learning for Sustainability’ is research-informed, widely recognised in the field as a leading international approach and is currently being adopted by a range of European nations. 

The inclusion of outdoor learning is not evident in other national contexts we are aware of, but our research which began in 2011, and other international studies indicate its significance as an experiential approach to help learners to respect and value nature and understand its role in supporting climate stability. Education outdoors has long been a feature of Scottish education in school grounds, locally and at residential centres, and lends itself to practical, innovative interdisciplinary pedagogies.  Further, recent evidence has shown how remarkably effective taking learners outside the classroom is for academic learning in most disciplines, as well as their health, physical and mental well-being. The latter became much more evident through studies at the time of Covid-19 and subsequently.

The current Programme for Government commits the Scottish Government to implementing a ‘strengthened Learning for Sustainability Action Plan and as part of this ensure that all young people have the opportunity to learn about the causes and effects of climate change, the role we can all play in preventing it, and the importance of climate justice’. In the Action Plan a key focus is on ensuring that every 3-18 place of education becomes a ‘Sustainable Learning Setting’ by 2030. However, the challenge is significant. There is a need to adapt the school estate and procurement practices to embed and demonstrate sustainability, weave appropriate content across an already ‘crowded curriculum’, provide significant and focused ‘career-long professional learning’ for the teaching profession, and ensure LfS is a core element of pre-service teacher education.

Learning for Sustainability sets out to develop the ‘values, attitudes, knowledge, skills and confidence’ to ‘build a socially-just, sustainable and equitable society’, but equally importantly it is about ensuring learners in our schools are confident in holding policy makers, educators and all other relevant actors in society to account. Recent studies of young people’s views on the future of education in Scotland showed they wanted to see an urgent response to the climate and nature emergencies and expect LfS to be a meaningful feature throughout their school life.  It is imperative that we do not consider our young people as ‘citizens in waiting’ and we heed their call: not to do so is a gross indulgence – sending a message that the problems caused by ours and previous generations can be left to theirs and future generations to address.


  • Scottish Government (2023) Learning for Sustainability Action.
  • Higgins, P. & Christie, E. (2018). Learning for sustainability. In: Scottish Education. Editors: Bryce, T., Humes, W., Gillies D. and Kennedy A. p. 554-564. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Beames, S., Higgins, P., Nicol, R. & Smith, H. (2024). Outdoor learning across the curriculum.  Abingdon: Routledge. 170 pp.