There have always been mixed views on whether Ofsted should be judging schools on their sustainability work. Those who support this see that being taken seriously by Ofsted is a good thing as it confers a sort of respectability on what is being looked at: it’s obviously as important as maths, the argument goes. Others see Ofsted’s scrutiny in a more malign fashion, thinking that the farther Ofsted is away from young people and sustainability the better. Others simply don’t trust Ofsted to make judgements on, as they see it, something they simply don’t understand.

It wasn’t always like this. In the distant past (1970s / 1980s), HMI took an informed interest in environmental education and produced smart and useful commentaries on its development. For example, In early 1983, HMI published A Survey of Environmental Education in Some Derbyshire Primary Schools [ S910/7/011 143/83 DS 1982 ].  This was based on schools visits to 13 schools “of varying size, type and catchment area [which were all] … known to be involved in environmental education and where work was based on topics and a thematic or integrated approach was being undertaken.” Additionally, the Education in England (the history of our schools) website contains HMI publications including the (1979) second edition of its Curriculum 11-16 Working Papers.  This deals with environmental education because this was a time when HMI took it seriously, unlike Ofsted today.  But then, HMI thought about curriculum unlike … .

In more recent times, Ofsted did take more than a passing interest in sustainability thanks to the influence of one HMI, but as he was eased out of the way the interest faded. And here we are today with Ofsted rather under the cosh because of recent sad developments. Our Chair has more detail and a personal view.

And so to the present. In a recent SEEd blog, NAEE trustee, Morgan Phillips, Head of Education and Youth Engagement, Global Action Plan, argued that it’s a good thing that Ofsted isn’t yet assessing schools on their sustainability work. However, they key word here is the “yet”.

This is how Morgan begins:

“On May 31st, the Department for Education (DfE) will release two new ITT’s for contracts relating to the delivery of the DfE Sustainability and Climate Change strategy (‘the DfE strategy’ for short). Advance detail of these two contracts can be found here: ‘Support Hub’ and ‘Sector Engagement and Support’. The final deadline for submission is July 26th 2023.

For the ‘Support Hub’, in the words of the DfE:

The Department is looking to procure an experienced and prominent national lead provider (or consortia) to design and produce an online ‘Sustainability Leadership in Education’ support hub to enable the design, development and implementation of climate action plans.

And for the ‘Sector Engagement and Support’ package:

The Department is looking to procure an experienced and prominent national lead provider (or consortia) to co-ordinate a regional network of environmental sustainability and climate change experts.

To be successful within an education setting, Sustainability Leads (or teams) need the skills, knowledge, and capacity to (a) develop and implement an effective Climate Action Plan, (b) achieve Climate Action Awards, and (c) fully participate in the National Education Nature Park. For this – and for any additional sustainability ambitions their setting has – they need high quality resources, external support, budget, and a strong mandate.

The DfE’s Sustainability and Climate Change strategy is helping to create that mandate, and the work being carried out (by Natural History Museum and partners), and in plan (the two new contracts), will strengthen the support and resources education settings and their Sustainability Leads require.

However, as our sector colleagues rightly point out, nothing in the DfE strategy is currently mandatory – the mandate is stronger than it was, but still not strong. This limits the availability of policy support, and therefore funding for resources, networks, training, staff time, and physical ‘green’ infrastructure. This situation – as the DfE Sustainability and Climate Change openly acknowledge – is unlikely to change until at least the beginning of the 2024/25 academic year.

This is a frustration for some. They fear that if OFSTED inspectors are not seeking evidence of a setting having a ‘Climate Action Plan’ or a ‘Sustainability Lead’ – or even giving them due recognition if they do – education settings have little incentive to create and support either. What we know, however, is that even without the OFSTED stick, increasing numbers of education settings – at all levels, early years through to higher education – are appointing staff to roles equivalent to a Sustainability Lead, and developing activities that align with the Climate Action Plan, Climate Action Awards, and Nature Park initatives. …”

Morgan concludes:

“In this respect, is a good thing that the DfE strategy is, right now, only a strategy and not a set of statutory requirements that settings have to deliver on. I say good because while the sustainability education ecosystem is growing, it is not yet set up to manage a sudden surge in demand for its services. The DfE strategy, if successfully implemented, will secure the foundations and infrastructure of the sustainability education sector readying it to be built up and capable of meeting the demand that will be placed on it when 25,000+ Sustainability Leads (and their teams) call out for expert training, support, and resources.

I have no doubt that a policy shift is coming, education settings will – sooner rather than later – be judged by OFSTED on the quality and quantity of sustainability action and education they deliver. It is not a question of if, it is a question of when. And it will be sooner rather than later if the work done in the next two years convinces DfE Ministers that the supply of support for Sustainability Leads can match the demand that will inevitably balloon once sustainability is mandatory.

So, to convince Ministers, we – as a sustainability education movement – need to work together (and with the DfE) to build a robust and coherent sustainability education infrastructure that is easy to navigate, demonstrably growing, and – most critically – ready to scale.

As any history of education textbook will tell you, slow revolutions succeed far more often than fast ones. We’re about two years into this particular revolution, we won’t know if it has succeeded for a while, but I think it can; DfE’s Sustainability and Climate Change unit know what they’re doing. Work with them.”

The whole post can be found here.

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