Development Education and the National Strategy on Education for Sustainability Development in Ireland 2014 – 2020

Photo: IMG_6072 by  lusciousblopster (20th June 2012) at Bike Week 2012, Dublin (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license).
Photo: IMG_6072 by lusciousblopster (20th June 2012) at Bike Week 2012, Dublin (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license).

Definition of Education for Sustainable Development

Education for sustainable development develops and strengthens the capacity of individuals, groups, communities, organizations and countries to make judgements and choices in favour of sustainable development. It can promote a shift in people’s mindsets and in so doing enable them to make our world safer, healthier and more prosperous, thereby improving the quality of life. Education for sustainable development can provide critical reflection and greater awareness and empowerment so that new visions and concepts can be explored and new methods and tools developed (UNECE 2005, 1; UNECE, 2009, 15).

– National Strategy for ESD in Ireland (2014)

Following a public consultation last autumn, the Department of Education and Skills (DES) published the long awaited national strategy on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in July.

The strategy has implications across all education sectors in Ireland for both formal (primary, post-primary, higher education) and non-formal education (youth, community, adult education).

The DES has taken note of the many development education opportunities that already link to sustainable development. Even cursory glance at the submissions from the DE sector reveals a strong presence in the consultation and longstanding levels of interest from development educators in sustainable development (our submission can be accessed here).

Indeed, development educators have been actively involved in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agenda for 15 years and have a long tradition of public advocacy and education around the eight MDGs, including Goal no. 7 ‘to ensure environmental sustainability’. A quick passing of the policy areas identified that relate to ESD are very familiar with development educators:

Environmental issues (climate change; disaster risk reduction; biodiversity; environmental protection; natural resource management; urban decay; water security),

Socio-economic issues (economic growth; poverty; food prices; child labour; social exclusion; justice; debt-security; human rights; health; gender equity; cultural diversity; production and consumption patterns; corporate responsibility; population growth; migration) and

‘Political’ issues (citizenship; peace; ethics; human rights; democracy and governance) (UNECE, 2005, 4 ; UNECE, 2009, 17).

–        National Strategy for ESD in Ireland (2014) [emphasis made]

The cooperation and interdepartmental approach taken in the strategy is to be commended as the DES will work with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Department of the Taoiseach, Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. A prime example of interdepartmental policy coherence in action.

In the strategy, ESD in Ireland aims to:

  • balance environmental , social and economic considerations;
  • promote lifelong learning;
  • be locally relevant while also linking the local to the national and international;
  • engage all sectors of the education system, as well as the non-formal education sector;
  • be interdisciplinary and recognise interdependence and interconnectivities across other sectors;
  • use a variety of pedagogical techniques that promote active and participatory learning and the development of key dispositions and skills;
  • emphasise social justice and equity;
  • focus on values and promote active democratic citizenship and inclusion as a means of empowering the individual and the community.
  • be an agent for positive change in reorienting societies towards sustainable development.

Eight priority areas have been identified as key leverage points for achieving the aims of the strategy. These include:

  1. Leadership and coordination
  2. Data collection and baseline measurement
  3. Curriculum at pre-school, primary and post primary.
  4. Professional development
  5. Further Education and Training
  6. Higher Education and Research
  7. Promoting participation by young people.
  8. Sustainability in action

At 50 pages in length spanning 44 recommendations the strategy packs plenty of ambition into an approach rooted in achievable results.

Nine key recommendations from the strategy relate to development education opportunities that are worth highlighting (each of the recommendations is further expanded in the strategy document):

Recommendation 1 An Education for Sustainable Development Advisory Group should be established by the Department of Education and Skills in 2014. The Advisory Group, which should be chaired by a senior official within the Department of Education and Skills, should provide a forum for:

  • highlighting existing activity relating to ESD, new developments and resources, and sharing best practice;
  • making the findings of ESD research available through the proposed ESD web portal (cf recommendation 3), and considering the issues arising from the findings of such research;
  • building partnerships and mobilising stakeholders;
  • contributing to the planning of an annual ESD forum which will invite a wide range of relevant stakeholders to consider issues arising from the work of the Advisory Group;
  • monitoring progress on the recommendations in the National Strategy for ESD, and reporting annually to the High Level Group on Sustainable Development; and
  • contributing to a mid-term review of overall progress on the National Strategy in 2017.
Recommendation 2 The Department of Education and Skills should be formally represented on key structures representing Development Education in Ireland, under the aegis of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including the World Wise Global Schools Network which aims to coordinate Development Education activities at post primary level, and on the Irish Aid grants committee. Opportunities for advancing Education for Sustainable Development should seek to build synergies with Development Education where this is appropriate.
Recommendation 3 The Department of Education and Skills will provide a specific ESD portal on its website, or on the website of one of its agencies, in 2014. This portal should:

  • comprise a platform for coordinating and sharing ideas and resources on ESD;
  • contain information about the work of the Advisory Group on Education for Sustainable Development (recommendation 1).
Recommendation 9 The NCCA should support schools, NGOs, and other interested stakeholders who wish to develop Junior Cycle short courses or Transition Units on issues relevant to ESD through templates, guidelines and other support material, and also promote awareness of existing materials that have already been developed.
Recommendation 10 ‘Politics and Society’ should be introduced as a new Leaving Certificate subject when the NCCA has provided advice to the Minister for Education and Skills on a number of technical issues.
Recommendation 29 The Department of Education and Skills (supported by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs) should consult children and young people directly on the issue of Education for Sustainable Development. This consultation process will take place before 2017. It will be used as an evidence base to inform the development of future policy in this area
Recommendation 30 The Department of Children and Youth Affairs should conduct a survey of existing programmes that are related to Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), and Development Education (DE) given the extent to which ESD and DE are interlinked in the Youth sector, and report the results to the proposed ESD Advisory Group in 2015. The report should include recommendations for strengthening the role of young people as change agents for sustainable development.
Recommendation 31 The Department of Children and Youth Affairs should reflect the importance of Education for Sustainable Development in the new Youth Strategy that is currently being developed, as well as in the Early Years Strategy due to be published by that Department under the overall National Policy Framework for Children and Young People, ‘Better Outcomes: Brighter Futures’.
Recommendation 34 Higher Education institutions should continue to form closer links with schools, the Youth sector, and communities in relation to sustainable development in order to exchange ideas and best practice and in particular to facilitate wider access to the specialist expertise and knowledge on sustainability that is available in third level institutions. The learning from this collaboration could be made available on a national basis.

The research agenda and opportunities for ESD research will be of interest to many development educators that have been working on sustainable development. Three recommendations are relevant here:

Recommendation 21 The Department of Education and Skills should work with the HEA to ensure that sustainable development is one of the priority areas reflected in future calls for research programmes that are funded by the Department.
Recommendation 22 Third level institutions should continue to seek collaborations with industry and other stakeholders through strategic clusters and centres of excellence for sustainable development. Any opportunities for international cooperation between academic institutions at EU level or beyond should also be promoted.
Recommendation 23 The Department of Education and Skills should continue to implement its commitments in relation to research and development that are contained in Our Sustainable Future.


OPINION: For more see An exemption for business from the ESD strategy?  On the silence of the business sector and local government by Tony Daly (6th November 2014).