Our Chair of Trustees has been reading and reviewing Leadership for Sustainability: saving the planet one school at a time, written by NAEE Trustee David Dixon, and published by Crown House Publishing, 2022: 250pp, paperback, £18.99, ISBN 978-1-78135-401-8.  The full review will appear shortly in the Spring 2023 issue of FORUM (volume 65, number 1), but is available here as a blog.

This is how the review begins:

“September 2022 saw the 60th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring which drew attention to the devastating impact that the indiscriminate use of pesticides such as DDT was having on the natural world.  It also pointed to a fundamental problem in our attitude towards nature.  Interviewed shortly before her death in 1964, Carson said:

“We still talk in terms of conquest.  We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe.  We in this generation, must come to terms with nature, and … prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”

Almost sixty years on from that interview we still haven’t ‘come to terms’, and no national education programmes in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter, have taken the idea seriously.  If we had, what David Dixon did in his schools might have been commonplace rather than exceptional, and he might have been able to write a different book, or perhaps would have had no reason to write a book at all.

One key impact of Silent Spring was the realisation that young people needed to learn more about the natural world, our dependence on it, and the threats we pose to it.  This gave rise to environmental education programmes in schools and universities, and the establishment of organisations dedicated to their promotion.  Across the UK in the 1970s, a range of schools added an emphasis on the environment to their curricula and there was support from HMI, exam boards, NGOs, the UN and other international agencies.  The Department for Education’s attitude was lukewarm at best, as Sean Carson (no relation) memorably pointed out in 1978: ‘[It] claimed to have been encouraging environmental education all along — while taking care to absolve itself from any obligation to give any leadership in the future’.  In this, nothing has really changed.

The imposition of the national curriculum saw the end of innovation and experimentation in the schools led by the likes of David Dixon.  What replaced it was a defined and minimal coverage of climate and environment topics firmly sequestered within science and geography.  Cross curriculum guidance was provided but to no great effect.

As time passed, the environmental problems we faced grew in scale and seriousness and thanks to UN reports, world summits, and activist agencies, the nature and range of our concerns also spread.  The concept of sustainability became prominent and with it the idea that people mattered as well as the environment, particularly the marginalised and dispossessed; all those living on less than a dollar a day.  The concept of environmental justice was a component of this. Today the breadth of our concerns, which now include climate change of course, is embodied in the sustainable development goals that were agreed in 2015.

Because of this broadening, the idea of education for sustainability emerged and then the notion of the sustainable school.  Over the last 15 years or so, a number of attempts have been made to set out depictions of what a sustainable school might or ought to look like.  The most recent is the descriptors produced by the National Governance Association – NGA – (working with the National Association for Environmental Education) in its Environmental Sustainability: a whole school approach.  Understandably, these foreground the importance of school leadership.  David Dixon’s book obviously chimes with this emphasis, not only with its title but through its notion of captaincy which is one of the Cs in his 5-C model of sustainability.  His other Cs are curriculum, campus, community and connections.  By contrast, the NGA model has 4 Cs: culture, campus, community and curriculum.


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