Turning off lights. How sustainable development becomes embedded in primary schools’ everyday life
Paulos, Margarida Ramires
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Focusing on the ‘Sustainable schools’ strategy, a programme launched in 2006 by the former United Kingdom government, this thesis examines the relationship between sustainable development and schools. It analyses how the abstract and contested concept of sustainable development (Scott & Gough 2003), is translated into education practices in state-funded primary schools in England and Portugal. The collection of data in two different countries is explained by the fact that it was in England that the ‘Sustainable schools’ policy was developed. Portugal was selected due to a requirement from my Portuguese sponsor, providing a valuable opportunity to explore the role of the context in the development of education for sustainable development (ESD) in primary schools. Taking a sociological approach, this study explores the practices of education for sustainable development and the factors that shape those practices. It looks at the way schools make choices, what they prioritise, and what the key elements influencing the development of ESD are. ‘What does one want ESD for?’; this is the underlying question behind the research, and so practices are contrasted with motivations, interests, agendas and expected outcomes. There is no single definition of ESD, given the complexity involved, and so to accept the importance of the concept of sustainability for education is to accept something that constitutes a problem (Corcoran & Wals 2004). Sustainability itself is a normative ethical principle, not a scientific concept as such, and since it has both necessary and desirable characteristics, there is no single model of a sustainable society (Robinson 2001). By providing robust data on how schools interpret, organise, decide, and implement ESD, my research contributes to the discussion of the role of schools in the transition to a ‘fairer and greener’ world. Literature claims, policy ideas and school practices are compared and contrasted with the aim of ‘demystify’ ESD and question the intentions, the expectations and the projected ESD outcomes The key research question of this study aims to identify the limitations of ESD in the shift to a ‘greener and fairer’ world. In order to do that, this thesis researched three other sub-questions: a) how is sustainability translated into practice in state-funded primary schools? b) how important is the promotion of ESD in primary schools’ agendas? and c) how was the ‘Sustainable schools’ project designed to prepare pupils for current and future environmental and social challenges. On the search for answers, several dilemmas were identified: of teaching about sustainable development versus practising it; of promoting critical thinking versus promoting specific knowledge, values and behaviours; of accepting the sustainable development concept or challenging it; of reducing the school’s environmental impact or developing the curriculum. These must all be faced by those dealing with ESD. Using a mixed methods approach, I explored these particular issues by researching five state-funded primary schools in England, some of which considered exemplary of the best practice of ESD. The case-studies research was followed by an online questionnaire sent to selected schools in England and Portugal. The questionnaire was used mainly to develop further the understanding of the results gathered with the case studies, providing a more robust image of ESD practices and its context. My research concludes that schools value ESD and tend to deal with its complexity by dividing the main ideas within the concept of sustainable development, into specific themes and activities, such as recycling, turning off lights or growing vegetables. The development of the school’s grounds, the investment in eco-features, and the activity-based projects are the most common practices found in the different schools. In this sense, there is a significant degree of standardisation in the projects developed, combined with a diverseness of specificities explained by the context, or the way the diverse factors, such as the location, the size, and the resources of the school, are used and combined. The limitations of ESD in the shift to a ‘greener and fairer’ world are plentiful, related to schools’ internal and external constraints, revealing the need to adjust expectations and resources to the projects developed by schools.