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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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The New South Wales Sustainable Schools Program

Annette Strangward
Phil Smith and Syd Smith
Sue Burton

Annette Strangward is Sustainable Schools Program Coordinator, New South Wales Department of Education and Training. Sue Burton is Senior Project Officer, Department of Environment and Conservation. Phil Smith is Manager Education, Department of Environment and Conservation. Syd Smith is a prominent Environmental Educator.

In New South Wales the Sustainable Schools Program (SSP) is working with the school systems and their communities, teachers and students to support positive environmental change. A key issue is the integration of good educational practice into Environment Education initiatives. This paper gives a brief overview of the SSP and of related curriculum issues.

The United Nations Decade in Education for Sustainable Development commences in 2005. Its advent reflects the growing recognition of education for sustainability as pivotal in motivating and managing change for an improved environment and a better quality of life.

Traditionally schools in New South Wales have been very active in environmental activities. However, the integration of these activities into school planning and teaching has been a diverse process.

Sustainable schools in New South Wales

In New South Wales the SSP commenced in 2003 through a partnership between the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) and Department of Education and Training (DET), supported by the Commonwealth Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH). The program works with 200 schools (government, non-government, primary and secondary) and employs environment educators around the State to work with schools and their local communities.

The SSP is guided by the principles in the New South Wales Council on Environmental Education's three year plan, Learning for Sustainability.

A recent evaluation of SSP schools showed that they are developing a shared vision, understanding and thinking about environmental management, that supports life long learning. They are connecting learning experiences to personal and social responsibilities that value environmental citizenship, and establishing a commitment that supports change in attitudes and behaviour. For example, some schools are assisting local councils by contributing to waste minimisation programs, while others have convinced their town to adopt sustainable projects like abolishing plastic bags.

Environmental Education and NSW government schools

For government schools in New South Wales the Environmental Education Policy for Schools requires the development of a School Environment Management Plan (SEMP). This sets the policy framework for schools to plan and coordinate Environmental Education and meet objectives in three interrelated focus areas: the management of school resources, the management of grounds and curriculum integration.

The SEMP is intended to support participatory processes and community involvement. It also encourages whole school learning, to raise awareness of environmental issues and sustainability by acting locally and thinking globally.

Environmental Education and education for sustainability

Environmental Education has been described as education about, for and with the environment. Sustainability education is participatory, reflective and about questioning current practices. Both involve developing deep understandings and skills in relation to the principles of sustainability and of the natural world. Both can enhance the relevance of curriculum for students, and support creative and social activities that enable schools and students to transform their world for the better.

The strategies used in both Environmental Education and educating for sustainability are similar. They include

  • Futures thinking - linking what has been, what is now and where to go next
  • Reflecting and evaluating
  • Basing decisions on knowledge of the environment and our impact
  • Actively supporting participatory processes to bring about change.

Issues in integrating environmental activities and curriculum

The SSP builds on many years of environmental activities occurring within schools in New South Wales. The issues dealt with include waste reduction, environmental works in school grounds, energy reduction programs, environmental events, excursion cycles, recycling initiatives and school support for community campaigns.

The challenge now is to establish a connection between environmental action and curriculum implementation, which is supported through a whole-school planning approach that incorporates curriculum planning, management, school-based policy development and student empowerment.

Teachers find the holistic approach required to integrate Environmental Education into the curriculum a challenge, given the competing priorities within schools. Schools are choosing initially to focus on the more visual aspects of Environmental Education such as grounds improvement or resource management.

Curriculum integration is unlikely to be an initial focus for schools, for complex reasons. One obstacle is that new environment activities (eg a waste management system) within a school are often initiated by one teacher, who has to demonstrate that they can work before others follow the example. Another difficulty is the time required for planning and implementing initiatives through a participatory and integrative approach to whole-school planning.

Curriculum integration will require a whole-school focus and a long term commitment. Moves towards such an approach are already evident in some places. For example, some primary and secondary schools are beginning to think about the reasoning behind establishing a worm farm or shade house, and identifying how this may be maintained within the curriculum.

One central school (K-12) is currently integrating a waste management focus into their curriculum that involves investigating water quality issues. It also intends to establish enterprise education for students based around management of their canteen. A secondary school has identified a riparian zone adjacent to a local creek as a focus for long term action plans. A primary school has identified an endangered habitat area that borders their school grounds.

Environmental Education is also an opportunity for students to explore values and ethical principles, and challenge current practices and attitudes. By exploring sustainability issues within their school and local community, students are examining patterns and effects of human involvement in the local area, the use of shared resources, the interdependence of natural resources and the need for environmentally responsible decisions. In this context, Riverina students presented recommendations on sustainability to the 21st Commonwealth Agricultural Conference held in Albury earlier this year.

The SSP is assisting schools to base their approach to these issues on individual school priorities and understandings about sustainability. However, schools need time to establish principles of sustainability, and to engage students and the whole school community in developing a shared sense of purpose. By developing a shared understanding of 'a sustainable school', the potential to achieve significant change, improve environmental outcomes and achieve social and behavioural change is being realised.

Subject Headings

Curriculum planning
Education policy
Environmental Education
New South Wales (NSW)
Sustainable development