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 currently developing our strategy and initiatives to help support the sector’s adoption of education for sustainable development (ESD) to enhance teaching, learning, assessment and leadership.

Areas in development include:

  • Embedding ESD across our CPD portfolio
  • Designing new specialist ESD programmes
  • Working strategically with the sector and industry, engaging with ESD trailblazers and experts both in the UK and internationally to ensure we are at the forefront of change
  • Regularly reviewing our ESD work enabling us to work in line with the latest thinking and evidence
  • Understanding, scrutinising and improving our own organisation’s sustainability impacts.

For more information about our developing ESD offer, 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.

Resources #ESDinFE

As part of our strategy development we’re looking at where the ETF can add most value to supporting the FE and training sector to embrace ESD. Part of this will be developing 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.

  • AELP 2021 Spring Conference

Watch Cerian Ayres, ETF’s National Head of Technical Education, and Charlotte Bonner, ETF’s National Head of Education for Sustainable Development, discuss apprenticeships and Education for Sustainable Development in ‘Preparing apprentices for the world of work, and the work of the world’ recorded at AELP’s 2021 Spring Conference.