Extending the Vision: Australian Government engagement with the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-2014
Joan Cornish - Environmental Education Section, Knowledge Management and Education Branch, Department of the Environment and Heritage
VAEE DESD Forum
Melbourne, 31 January 2005
The beginning of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) in January this year marks an exciting and promising time for all of us involved in trying to create a sustainable future.
To attain a sustainable future and achieve our economic, social and environmental goals we need to multiply the number of people who support sustainability and are making changes to their way of thinking, living and working. Education plays a critical role by giving people opportunities to reflect, rethink, learn and build their capacity in order to bring about meaningful change.
Education for sustainable development addresses the complexity and interconnectedness of problems such as poverty, wasteful consumption, environmental degradation, urban decay, population growth, health, conflict and the violation of human rights.
The task at hand is enormous, but vital if we are to ensure the creation of truly sustainable societies.
The Australian Government has long recognised the role of Education for Sustainable Development in securing a better future for the nation. In 1998 it took first steps to articulate national level commitment and conducted a national review of environmental education in Australia, which included a comprehensive consultative process with relevant stakeholders - in particular the Australian Association for Environmental Education (AAEE and its State equivalents.
The review culminated in the release in July 2000 of the first National Action Plan for Environmental Education. Key initiatives of the Plan included:
- the establishment of the National Environmental Education Council (NEEC) in 2000, an expert advisory body to the Minister comprising people from a variety of sectors; its role is helping set priorities in Education for Sustainability;
- the establishment of the National Environmental Education Network (NEEN) in 2001, with representatives from Commonwealth, State and Territory environment and education agencies to promote better coordination of activities and which has had a significant role in the development of Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative;
- the implementation of a research program to improve the quality of environmental education and achieve better outcomes, through the establishment of the Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability (ARIES) in 2003 under a contractual arrangement between DEH and Macquarie University;
- better resourcing of environmental education (EE) through including provision for funding of EE and capacity building activities in all departmental funding programs - including Envirofund, regional NRM arrangements, and a small, targeted EE grants program;
- the establishment of an environmental education working group, the Environmental Education Forum, to coordinate education activities across the Australian Government Environment and Heritage portfolio and to develop an internal environmental education policy.
The following slide shows how these bodies work together:
Structure Chart showing relationship between the Minister, DEH, the Council and its Working Groups and ARIES. NEEN (not shown) is convened by DEH
It is significant that, since its release four and a half years ago, all the major initiatives of this first generation National Action Plan have now been met.
These initiatives are largely structural but they are significant in laying the foundation for increased focus and profile for Education for Sustainability. In addition the EE Section of DEH has been working to advance environmental education in practical ways, through support for programs like Sustainable Schools.
Overall, the emphasis has been on achieving systemic change and a move beyond awareness raising to promote long lasting attitudinal and behavioural change.
It is with these initiatives firmly in place - as well as the enormous array of activities on the ground at the state and community level - that we find ourselves at the beginning of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. The Decade centres on the collective pursuit of a global vision, linked to shared objectives.
Global vision for DESD:
The vision of education for sustainable development is a world where everyone has the opportunity to benefit from quality education and learn the values, behaviour and lifestyles required for a sustainable future and for positive societal transformation. From the UNESCO International Implementation Scheme - October 2004
Governments around the world have been invited, under the banner of the Decade, to strengthen their contribution to sustainable development through a focus on education. How this vision will translate from country to country will obviously vary. In Australia the opportunity to enhance existing on ground environmental efforts through a greater emphasis on the principles and benefits of education for sustainability is considerable.
Proposed DESD objectives:
- give an enhanced profile to the central role of education and learning in the common pursuit of sustainable development;
- facilitate links and networking, exchange and interaction among stakeholders in ESD;
- provide a space and opportunity for refining and promoting the vision of, and transition to, sustainable development - through all forms of learning and public awareness;
- foster increased quality of teaching and learning in education for sustainable development; and
- develop strategies at every level to strengthen capacity in ESD.
From the UNESCO International Implementation Scheme - October 2004
The Decade is timely given pressing environmental issues such as natural resource management, biodiversity, salinity and water quality.
The significance of these issues is reflected in the Australian Government investment in various environmental policies and programs like the $3 billion Natural Heritage Trust and the $1.4 billion National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.
Of note is the Government's new $2 billion Australian Water Fund including $200 million for a Communities Program that contains specific funds earmarked for educating the community about sustainable practices.
There is much work being done through partnerships between the community, state and national agencies. However, these activities need to be supported by effective community education processes if the benefits of these programs are to last into the future.
How can the UN Decade of ESD help us to achieve our aims?
The UN General Assembly has an already crowded agenda. As well as a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development the years 2005-2014 are also the International Decade of Action 'Water for Life'. We need to be particularly careful to ensure our engagement with the DESD is meaningful to ensure the scepticism that sometimes surrounds International Decades, Years and Days is not justified in this case.
Activities must be carefully crafted to have longevity and real impact. Our focus must be on strategic investment of resources that will bring lasting change - rather than isolated actions with little chance of ongoing support. Partnerships and the sharing of information will be crucial to create maximum impact and to avoid unnecessary duplication.
To address these concerns UNESCO, as UN lead agency responsible for the Decade, has put together an International Implementation Scheme. Importantly, the focus of the Scheme is on advocacy, communication and networking directed at facilitating all educators to include sustainable development concerns and goals in their own programs.
Ultimately what will be achieved rests with individual nations and their desire to focus on practical initiatives with real outcomes.
Given our existing commitment to Education for Sustainability, Australia is well positioned to respond to the Decade. In line with the UNESCO Implementation Scheme, we should be looking to opportunities for building national and international capacity and the mainstreaming of Education for Sustainability considerations through strategies such as:
- developing and expanding existing Australian Government priorities and programs;
- promoting and sharing successful Australian initiatives and expertise in education for sustainability;
- inviting national and international partnerships to strengthen and reorientate policies and programs; and
- undertaking a gap analysis and evaluation of work to date.
Some initial thoughts on how we might pursue these various strategies is provided in the following sections. Further development of these ideas will be based on consultation with various stakeholders such as the NEEC, NEEN and AAEE.
National Environmental Education Council (NEEC)
The NEEC will continue its role of identifying and advising the Minister for the Environment and Heritage on key priorities in Education for Sustainability, providing national leadership in this area.
In 2003 a number of Working Groups were formed in the sectors of School Education, Further and Higher Education and Industry. These involve experts from government, schools, industry and the broader community to assist in the identification of needs and development of projects in each sector. The School Education Working Group was responsible for the original recommendation for the National Environmental Education Statement that is currently being developed for DEH by the Curriculum Corporation. The Council and its Working Groups also play a central role in guiding the research program under ARIES, acting in conjunction with the Department.
The Decade will represent an opportunity to build on successes in the school sector with a focus on further and higher education, industry, and community. The Further and Higher Education Working Group is currently scoping strategic projects for the sector which include developing partnerships with key bodies such as the AVCC, the sharing of best practice, a sustainability toolbox for VET, and teaching awards recognising excellence in Education for Sustainability.
National Environmental Education Statement for Schools (NEES)
A National Environmental Education Statement for schools is currently being developed in consultation with the State and Territories and will be finalised in mid 2005. The launch of the NEES will be an opportunity to promote and continue to develop stronger partnerships between those working towards environment and education outcomes. The release of the Statement is not the end of the process and there will need to be consideration of how to ensure its objectives are taken up, such as the development of appropriate professional development programs. The Decade will provide the opportunity to highlight the role of educators and the need to explore ways to support them.
Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative
The Australian Government has provided $2 million in funding towards the development of a Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative to be rolled out across the State and Territories. This innovative program and its approach to implementing efficiencies into the management of school facilities and resources is exemplary. Through this initiative the whole school community is actively involved in making their school more sustainable, while teachers have much needed access to professional development in environmental education.
Following on from trials in New South Wales and Victoria agreements are going ahead in Queensland, the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. While the implementation of sustainable schools in each State and Territory is different and responds to the demands of local education systems as well as the roles of participating NGOs, the program embodies a strongly collaborative approach.
In breaking down the silo mentality and approaching environmental and educational outcomes in a holistic manner, the Sustainable Schools Initiative puts into practice much of the thinking and strategies behind the Decade. The Decade represents an opportunity to continue to build this program, and to further explore innovative partnerships.
Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability (ARIES)
Macquarie University was contracted by DEH to set up the Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability (ARIES) to address the need for research into how to best achieve the change towards sustainability in individuals and organisations - over and beyond simply raising awareness. The research program is developed in conjunction with the Department, the NEEC and its Working Groups. With funding from the Australian Government of $2.3 million over three years it will support a range of projects with practical outcomes that are aligned to existing Government policies and programs. Opportunities to identify best practice, share findings and work collaboratively on research issues will be actively sought.
The release of the first ARIES reports will take place this year and coincide with the beginning of the Decade.
Initial projects include:
- A Review of Whole-School Approaches to Sustainability which examines the sustainable schools initiatives internationally.
- Status and directions for environmental education in Australia. The project identifies current needs against international developments and identifies best practice with concrete examples of how this can be transferred into planning and practice. The findings will inform the next stage in the development of environmental education in Australia.
- Industry Sustainability Toolkit. A review of existing resources and a stage two action research project to assist companies to engage more deeply in sustainability, in particular through TBL reporting.
- Education for and about Sustainability in Australian Business Schools. The project has involved Australia's top business schools - Melbourne Business School, Australian Graduate School of Management, the Macquarie Graduate School of Management and Graduate Business School of the University of Technology Sydney - to identify opportunities to build sustainability outcomes into MBA programs.
The findings of stage one of the Industry Sustainability Toolkit and the Education about and for Sustainability in Australian Business Schools research will be released in early 2005. The first report to be released by ARIES - A Review of Whole-School Approaches to Sustainability - is already available on the ARIES and DEH web sites.
During the Decade, Australia's achievements, expertise and current endeavours in Education for Sustainability should be promoted and shared.
Increased publicity will help to raise the profile of Education for Sustainability as a mainstream issue, reaching new audiences who may currently think their actions are outside the arena of sustainability. More broadly, the majority of the population remains unaware of the true meaning of sustainability and how they can contribute to a sustainable future.
Promoting our achievements and sharing knowledge will add value to initiatives at the grassroots and regional levels. By disseminating information about our successes, communities can learn from other people's experiences and work from a common set of understandings. It will also lead to improved communication and opportunities for the cross pollination of ideas.
Promotion and sharing of information and best practice begins to address the need for capacity building and training. Sharing information on current projects will also assist in greater coordination, avoiding duplication of resources.
Partnerships are one of the seven strategies for implementing the Decade outlined in the International Implementation Scheme.
By working together, NGOs, voluntary organisations, governments and businesses have the opportunity to develop a shared vision, sharing resources and motivating change for the future. At the national level, existing partnerships established through, for example, the NEEC and NEEN, will continue to be developed.
Given the scope and nature of sustainability issues, countries acting in isolation are unlikely to affect lasting change. In recognition of the importance of international partnerships, the Australian Government is already actively developing strategic and targeted relationships with other key nations in the Asia-Pacific - part of the Government's ongoing support of, in particular, developing countries in the region.
Of particular interest to the DESD are our joint activities with Japan. In January 2005, DEH instigated a joint research initiative with the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Japan, known as IGES. A DEH representative will be collaborating on a project that will analyse the Australian experience in developing our National Action Plan for Environmental Education and how our experiences might be of use to developing Asian countries as they formulate their own national strategies.
The placement also presents an excellent opportunity to explore synergies between IGES's work and the applied environmental education research program being conducted by ARIES.
After almost five years of operation of the National Action Plan, it is appropriate to take a step back and to consider whether there are any gaps and/or further opportunities in the current national approach to Education for Sustainability.
Much has been achieved to date and recognition of where we have done well, in particular the outcomes in the schools sector, and where we have not made progress, offer important lessons for future approaches.
Apart from the approaches already underway to enact change within further and higher education, industry and formal education there are opportunities to work within and across levels of government.
Building awareness within and between portfolios in support of education for sustainability initiatives would also help to mainstream Education for Sustainability by recognising that all government portfolios have the potential to impact on the sustainability of Australia.
A primary aim of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) is to build genuine awareness and understanding of the principles and goals of education for sustainable development.
At the national level there will be opportunities for partnerships and for sharing of information. It is not envisaged however that the Australian Government would be responsible for coordinating a national program of activities, other than those involving Australian Government agencies themselves.
To ensure any national initiatives are responsive to community needs it is not intended that an exhaustive list of activities for the ten-year period will be developed at the commencement of the Decade. Instead involvement is more likely to entail a rolling program of activities with projects considered on an annual basis for one to two years ahead, in line with continuing evaluation and opportunity identification, thus building on the initiatives of each year.
Some longer-term goal setting may also be possible, for example in relation to the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative where the aim might be to implement the Initiative in all, or at least a significant proportion of, Australian schools.
In keeping with the UNESCO International Implementation Scheme, the importance of education for sustainability would be promoted through:
- continuation of the existing work of the National Environmental Education Council and the Department to re-orient education policies, programs and practices in accordance with the principles of education for sustainability;
- advocacy, communication and networking directed at facilitating all educators to include sustainable development concerns and goals in their own programs;
- the development of partnerships at all levels;
- linking to, and promotion of, existing initiatives, such as the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative and the research program of the Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability (ARIES), as well as the development of specific strategic international activities such as the partnership project with the Japanese Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES); and
- strategically planned engagement to ensure practical and uniquely Australian outcomes, aligned with national priorities.
The approach and suggested activities outlined in this paper represent some initial thoughts on the Decade. Activities will be developed in conjunction with the National Environmental Education Council and other stakeholders as the Decade progresses. Beyond the activities of the Australian Government, stakeholders from across business, government and the community are encouraged to work towards a common vision of a sustainable Australia.