Embedding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the curriculum

//Embedding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the curriculum

Embedding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the curriculum

the-global-goals-grid-blackThis article by Joyce Hallam was published in NAEE’s most recent journal [Vol 120; Spring 2019] which has a focus on the sustainable development goals [SDGs].


Before the Goals were agreed by the United Nations, a report (Bourn et al, 2016) on the importance and relevance of Global Citizenship Education (GCE) and sustainability within the primary curriculum, includes these statements:

– Sustainability:  Embed sustainability and global citizenship in educational policy and practice, linking to the UN agenda for global education after 2015.

– Curriculum: Develop a broad, balanced and rich entitlement curriculum which responds to both national and local need, eliminates the damaging division of status and quality between core and non-core, and teaches every subject, domain or aspect to the highest possible standard.

Whilst there is government support for this approach in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through statutory curricula, this is not the case in England.  As a consequence, the inclusion of GCE, sustainability and the Goals is at the discretion of individual schools.  The challenge, therefore, when teachers in England are under such intense pressure at primary and secondary level to achieve high-stakes results, is to convince school leaders and teachers that GCE, sustainability and the Goals are critical components of a 21stcentury curriculum.  To this end, it is essential to provide straightforward and easy to access guidance which can be used to enhance what has to be taught in the statutory curriculum. This article sets out how opportunities already exist for integrating the Goals into current statutory programmes, and how these will enhance and make relevant test-driven lessons, allowing for learning, and discussion of, in-the-moment issues.

As pupils of all ages are ‘growing up in a world of global media, in which the voices of many cultures compete for attention’ (De Block and Buckingham, 2007: viii), it is vital that teachers equip pupils to critically manage, assess and understand this deluge of information.  As there is almost no spare capacity within existing timetables, this must, in the main, be addressed through existing subject disciplines. In their report on GCE in Europe, Tarozzi and Inguaggiato (2016) show the crucial role of teachers:

“The opportunities available are, to some extent, implicit within the curriculum, rather than explicit in the form of either being statutory or recommendatory. This means that the inclusion of global issues within the curriculum relies heavily on individual teachers to champion and drive forward global issues.”

As an illustration, in a recent Geographical Association article an NQT writes about work with her Year 6 class:

“If we accept that what we do as educators is to prepare pupils for the future, to become socially active and engaged in all aspects of the community, then there would appear to be a deficiency in our current curriculum.  It does not provide opportunities for pupils to think prudently about the future and their role in it. However, enabling pupils to explore what might happen in the future can help them think for themselves. They can then evaluate the world around them.(Rose Erikson, Primary Geography, summer 2017).”


Where do the opportunities exist in current statutory programmes at primary and secondary level?

As the recent NAEE curriculum guides have illustrated, there is tremendous scope for developing concepts, ideas, knowledge, skills values and attitudes that relate directly to environmental and similar issues, and have potential to provide a starting point for linking to, and exploring, the SDGs.

As teachers are familiar with their subject programmes of study, the challenge is to help them see the opportunities for inclusion of GCE and SDGs within their teaching.  Pupils can then be exposed to the challenging issues of the day and begin to see the relevance and importance of the Goals to them. An extract from some excellent teaching resources on the Global Learning website states:

“The SDG aims of sustainable living require us all to develop new ways of thinking and acting. SDGs provide unprecedented opportunities for countries and communities to work together for a sustainable and equitable world. They give purpose to work across the curriculum, with rich data and real-life scenarios around universal themes and current global issues. They open up debate around differing ways of tackling extreme poverty and inequality and alternative perspectives on poverty and wealth.(Learning about the UN Sustainable Development Goals).”


Support for inclusion of GCE and SDGs in planning

The possibilities and resources available to support Goal-related teaching are vast, as is the plethora of ways in which individual schools interpret and personalise the national curriculum.  To this end, I have devised a generic framework showing possibilities for where each SDG can link to areas of the curriculum and possible activities and a subject-based overview showing where GCE could be deepened and developed through exploration of issues within each subject discipline. There is also a model to develop any one SDG to encompass a range of subjects to a depth appropriate for the year group of the pupils.

Needless to say, the pedagogy required to deepen understanding of these issues must involve debate, critical thinking, problem solving and creativity; very much a P4C approach:

“Many sustainability issues, such as social justice, equality of access to resources, people’s impact on the environment and natural habitats, can be controversial and may best be considered through discussion and debate.This allows pupils to explore their feelings about issues and think through their values, so developing their active citizenship. (Catling and Willy, 2009)”

Local issues are often the best starting point; eg, controversial plans for new roads, fracking, changing local populations through immigration, local pollution levels, local food, flooding, local habitats in danger.  Pupils have opportunity to become immersed in, and impassioned about, their local community, which opens the mindset to learning about and critically debating larger national and international issues such as Brexit, migration, climate change etc.


What needs happen to ensure GCE and SDGs are implemented consistently at primary and secondary level?

Against a backdrop of limited government support, it is essential to identify key policy areas where a focus on the Goals is relevant; for example:

  • Spiritual, moral, social and cultural development where there is still a legal requirement for state schools to include these aspects of development as part of the curriculum and therefore they remain encompassed within the school inspection framework.
  • Fundamental British values; from January 2015 school inspections check that schools promote ‘fundamental British values’ within the framework of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

There has also been significant input from DFID via the Global Learning Programme (now ended).

Inclusion as part of Teacher Training, good CPD for teachers and lobbying of governments, particularly when curriculum change is on the horizon, is essential.  However, none of this is going to change immediately and therefore working with what currently exists within statutory subject disciplines and school structures – including testing and accountability – has to be the way forward. Senior leaders and Head teachers will ultimately determine the way a school curriculum is constructed. They must be convinced of the value of a focus on the Goals and know it will enhance and develop their pupils’ ability to be active citizens and engaged learners, and lead to raised attainment.


Appendix 1  Opportunities for an SDG focus at primary and secondary level

This is a sample of statutory statements for primary and secondary subjects which provide scope for developing concepts, ideas, knowledge, skills values and attitudes that relate directly to global citizenship education and have potential to provide a starting point for linking to, and exploring, the Sustainable Development Goals.


Science at KS 1 and 2

  • develop understanding of the nature, processes and methods of science through different types of science enquiries that help them to answer scientific questions about the world around them
  • (pupils) are equipped with the scientific knowledge required to understand the uses and implications of science, today and for the future
  • (pupils) recognise that environments can change and that this can sometimes pose dangers to living things. They should do this through exploring and talking about their ideas; asking their own questions about scientific phenomena; and analysing functions, relationships and interactions more systematically. At upper key stage 2, they should encounter more abstract ideas and begin to recognise how these ideas help them to understand and predict how the world operates.

Geography at KS 1 and 2

  • (pupils) should develop knowledge about the world, the United Kingdom and their locality. They should understand basic subject-specific vocabulary relating to human and physical geography and begin to use geographical skills, including first-hand observation, to enhance their locational awareness.
  • describe and understand key aspects of human geography, including: types of settlement and land use, economic activity including trade links, and the distribution of natural resources including energy, food, minerals and water (Geography programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2 National curriculum in England 2013)

History at KS 1 and 2

  • (pupils explore) changes within living memory. Where appropriate, these should be used to reveal aspects of change in national life, events beyond living memory that are significant nationally or globally
  • (pupils explore) the lives of significant individuals in the past who have contributed to national and international achievements.
  • (pupils explore) understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance, and use them to make connections, draw contrasts, analyse trends, frame historically-valid questions and create their own structured accounts, including written narratives and analyses

(History programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2 National curriculum in England 2013)


GCSE Science GCSE specifications in science should enable students to:

  • (understand) relationships in an ecosystem the interdependence of organisms in an ecosystem, including food webs and insect pollinated crops
  • (understand) changes in the environment which may leave individuals within a species, and some entire species, less well adapted to compete successfully and reproduce, which in turn may lead to extinction the importance of maintaining biodiversity and the use of gene banks to preserve hereditary material
  • develop their ability to evaluate claims based on science through critical analysis of the methodology, evidence and conclusions, both qualitatively and quantitatively
  • (understand) positive and negative human interactions with ecosystems
  • (understand) Earth as a source of limited resources and the efficacy of recycling
  • (understand) the production of carbon dioxide by human activity and the impact on climate
  • (understand) fuels and energy resources
  • explain everyday and technological applications of science; evaluating associated personal, social, economic and environmental implications; and making decisions based on the evaluation of evidence and arguments

GCSE Geography GCSE specifications in geography should enable students to:

  • deepen understanding of geographical processes, illuminating the impact of change and of complex people-environment interactions,
  • develop and extend their knowledge of locations, places, environments and processes, and of different scales and social, political and cultural contexts (know geographical material)
  • gain understanding of the interactions between people and environments, change in places and processes over space and time, and the interrelationship between geographical phenomena at different scales and in different contexts (think like a geographer)
  • (have) more detailed contextual knowledge of two countries of contemporary global significance, in addition to the UK
  • (understand) the causes and consequences of uneven development at global level as the background for considering the changing context of population, economy and society and of technological and political development in at least one poorer country or one that is within a newly emerging economy

(Geography GCSE subject content and assessment objectives, June 2013)

GCSE History GCSE specifications in history should enable students to:

  • develop and extend their knowledge and understanding of: specified key events periods and societies in the history of their locality, Britain, and the wider world; and of the wide diversity of human experience
  • engage in historical enquiry to develop as independent learners and as critical and reflective thinkers
  • recognise that the discipline of history and a knowledge and understanding of the past helps them to understand their own identity and significant aspects of the world in which they live, and provides them with the basis for further wider learning and study

(History GCSE subject content and assessment objectives, June 2013)


Bourn, D., Hunt, F., Blum, F., and Lawson, H. (2016) Primary Education for Global Learning and Sustainability, York: Cambridge Primary Review Trust

Catling, S. and Willy, T. (2009) Teaching Primary Geography (Achieving QTS). Exeter: Learning Matters.

De Block, L. and Buckingham, D. (2007) Global Children, Global Media: Migration, media and childhood. London: Palgrave.

Learning about the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) globallearninglondon.org.uk

NAEE Curriculum Guides naee.org.uk/latest-report-from-naee

Erikson, R. Primary Geography, summer 2017

Tarozzi M., Inguaggiato C., (Eds.) (2016) Global Citizenship Education in Europe, A comparative study of Education Policies across 10 EU countries


Joyce Hallam is the retired Head Teacher of Hawkshead Esthwaite Primary School, and was the geography consultant and a voluntary support worker with the local Global Learning Programme (GLP), who sat on the advisory group for GLP.  You can contact Joyce at: Joyce.hallam@uwclub.net

By | March 3rd, 2019|Environmental Education Feature|0 Comments

About the Author:

Contributions to NAEE's blog come from its members, so posts do not necessarily represent the official view of the Association. Please get involved by commenting on posts, and, of course, by becoming a member.

Leave A Comment