Can you imagine a World’s Fair in 100 years’ time? Will we be able to celebrate our planet and our global success in securing an equitable future for all?

In 2016 we’re faced with significant global issues including mass migration and climate change (particularly at the forefront of people’s minds following the recent UN climate agreement in Paris). The United Nations was created by world leaders at the end of the Second World War as a way of systematically and collectively addressing the global issues of the time – international peace and security, and managing the mass relocation of people and homelessness. Today, however, despite the best of efforts, the world and the planet remain at risk.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described climate change as a “quintessentially global issue”. It is clearly a challenge that no country can meet on its own. So how are we going to deal with this global issue? Where does education in the 21st century fit in and how can it positively contribute?

According to Professor Charles Hopkins, who recently visited Scotland and GTC Scotland in his role as UNESCO Chair in Reorienting Teacher Education, the UN remains the best tool we’ve got. When speaking at a University of Edinburgh open lecture, he described the UN as a meeting place, where nations can come together in an effort to deal with big global issues. Back in 1985, Professor Hopkins was tasked, along with others, to come up with a global development model that would address the desire of 80 per cent of the world’s population “to live like Europeans and North Americans” and simultaneously the desire of 20 per cent of the worlds’ population (those in the Americas and Europe) for environmental protection – no easy task.

He explained that the pragmatic decision was, “we’ll go with development, but it should be development that is sustainable”. This is the compromise that remains today. Embedded in this decision are so many important questions and in particular – “sustaining what and for whom?”

Positive action and results have followed out of this initial piece of work. First there was Agenda 21: the first work programme established by the UN (in 1992) to advance sustainable development. This was followed by The Millennium Development Goals and in September last year the world agreed on a new set of goals – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As a nation, Scotland was one of the first countries to offer public support for this universal agenda for sustainable development for the next 15 years.

What is the Role of Education?

There is no doubt that education has a crucial role to play in the development of future generations and leaders in order that they have the skills and confidence to develop innovative solutions for a better future.

Goal 4 of the SDGs is Quality Education, with the goal being to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all.”

But it’s not just about ensuring access to education. Target 4:7 reads: “By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”. There are strong echoes of GTC Scotland’s Professional Values here (embedded in the Professional Standards), of which respect, social justice and learning for sustainability sit front and centre. It is the role of schools and teachers to make these values live every day.

The challenge

“Education for sustainable development” is a reorienting of education to meet sustainable outcomes, not about adding a new subject or area to the Curriculum. In reality, it demands the repurposing of the world’s entire education system. Hopkins explained: “After Rio in 1992, education for sustainable development was “considered” but people didn’t understand what it was and saw it as something for someone else. We started working on guilt: ‘If this is the world we’re giving young people then what is our responsibility as education leaders? That worked a bit. But now what we’re finding is that it is a part of education quality. How can you have a quality education if you’re not addressing [sustainability]?”

Professor Peter Higgins, University of Edinburgh, who also spoke at the open lecture, explained that in Scotland, we instead use the phrase “Learning for Sustainability” to describe our particular approach. “It is more than Education for Sustainable Development; it includes global citizenship and outdoor learning too”. He explained that Learning for Sustainability has become a feature of Scottish Government policy over the last 10 years. Scotland is recognised internationally for being forward-thinking and proactive in this area. And in terms of the work of GTC Scotland, Learning for Sustainability is embedded throughout the Professional Standards at all levels. However, although much has been done to embed Learning for Sustainability within the Scottish education system, there is more to do.

So what next? What else can we do? This is what GTC Scotland Chief Executive Ken Muir asked Charles Hopkins. His answer: “Re-examine the purpose of education'”. Ask the fundamental question, “Why are we educating people?” And, if it’s not for a sustainable future, ask what is it for?”