Updated: Sep 6
This blog is part of the blog series "Why this decade is more important than ever for education and the SDGs."
Written by Sarah Steel, Project Officer (Content) and former Global Schools Advocate in the UK.
The Department for Education in the United Kingdom (UK) has still not implemented the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the current curriculum. This means that quality education that involves Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is not being delivered. If we are to tackle the climate emergency and fight for a more peaceful and prosperous future around the world, this is vital.
Since the United Nations (UN) SDGs were introduced back in 2015, they have highlighted clear targets for us to achieve sustainable development and to transform the world we live in by 2030. The SDG journey is now halfway through its target timeline. Yet, young people in the UK still need to become educated on vital issues such as climate change, gender equality, and inequalities, among others. The SDGs address issues that impact not only local challenges but issues that we should be aware of as global citizens. Issues such as rising temperatures and rising sea levels not only displace communities but destroy habitats that house many species of animals. Extreme weather systems cause more natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and strong storms, that ruin civilisation and cause issues such as hunger and the spreading of diseases. This needs addressing. In April 2022, the government launched its sustainability and climate change strategy, but as the UN-Global Compact Network, Measuring Up 2.0 Report stated, the country is rated as RED for hitting target 4.7, which aims to “By 2030, ensure all learners acquire the knowledge & skills needed to promote sustainable development”.
Several organisations in the private sector have been quick to call out this disappointing progress, including Enactus UK. This is an organisation that works with young people across the UK and encourages socially responsible projects that engage young people in social action and SDG education. Andrew Bacon OBE, CEO of Enactus UK, stated, “Now, more than ever, we need the next generation of responsible leaders to take action. In Enactus UK, we all take action and measure our impact against the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We face very real challenges that require a step change in action, focus, and approach. We need more education, innovation, and we need more action”.
I am a programme manager for a charity called Nextgenleaders, and during my role, we found that 94% of the young people we work with from secondary schools could not define what an SDG was, and sixth-form students were not aware of what a greenhouse gas was! This definitely needs to change. As part of my role, I work with these young people to discuss issues and how they relate to the SDGs, and through project ideation, they work to create socially responsible projects that impact the livelihoods of people within their communities positively. I have witnessed young people thrive, and once engaged in social action, project-based learning, and ESD, they develop empathy, curiosity, and creativity. They become active citizens who aspire for more and who want to learn more about issues so they can make a difference within their communities. Project-based learning has also been proven to improve engagement. In an article written by Tom Dobson, a Professor in Education, he wrote, “I undertook a review of research into pedagogies used with 11-19-year-olds where the students engaged with their local communities on projects of their own devising. In the review, I found substantive evidence of positive outcomes when students had experienced one of two pedagogical approaches: project-based learning; and youth participatory action research”.
Moreover, the need to work together as a country and as a world was highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic, when education was disrupted worldwide, and the need to advocate for issues related to SDGs 3 and 5 were put in the spotlight.
As a Global Schools Advocate, I introduced ESD through an inclusive tutorial programme across the school with a certain SDG focus each half term. This was delivered through projects that helped young people learn about the issues, globally and locally, as a result of taking action with a key project. I also developed various programmes throughout the student body with key groups such as student leaders and pupils with low attendance or low attainment to engage them in meaningful activities and to help increase aspirations to develop their participation in learning. This was highly successful, showing an increase in the feeling of community, a rise in attendance, and over 70% of the student body taking part in a social action project that impacted the local community. Engaging in ESD increased academic ability, led to more motivation, and developed soft skills such as teamwork, confidence, and critical thinking.
During this time, I also worked with teachers by holding workshops and training sessions and met with SLT and other leadership roles across the school to inform them of the importance of teaching our young people about them. Many were extremely receptive, and through subjects such as Geography, History, and Citizenship, we found that many synergies aligned with the curriculum. The implementation of SDG education was as simple as highlighting the meaning of an SDG during a relevant lesson, for example, gender equality when studying History, erosion of land when studying Geography or democracy when delivering Citizenship. It is very easy to do with very little effort!
To conclude, investment in education is important to create a more equitable future, but so is sustainable development. Raising awareness of the issues and the integration of the SDGs into the curriculum will help inspire new careers, new partnerships, and new opportunities for our young people and make them aware of why change is needed. As the government is preparing to launch a new GCSE in 2025 called Natural History and various other courses in Sustainability being constructed along with the launch of a “Green Careers Week,” I do hope that we are taking the next steps to raise awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals and by discussing important issues such as gender equality and reduced inequalities we can prepare our younger generation to take on the challenges that may arise in the future and make the next decade the one where we achieve our goals.