Embedding sustainable development across Government, after the Secretary of State's announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by South West Learning for Sustainability Coalition


The South West Learning for Sustainability Coalition is a Community Interest Company that links a network of 100 organisations and individuals who see learning as essential to the development of a sustainable South West. We work across all sectors to ensure that education for sustainable development (ESD) initiatives contribute to a coherent framework of activity that reflects educational values, as well as sustainability concerns.

The three principal roles of the Coalition are:

  1. (i)  to share ideas and experience in education for sustainable development (ESD) across the region and with other regions;
  2. (ii)  to give the ESD movement a "voice" and sense of solidarity;
  3. (iii)  to work with others to ensure that ESD initiatives and services contribute to a coherent framework of provision across the region.

Since 2004 the Coalition has grown through the voluntary efforts of members and supportive institutions. With modest funding we have established a schools' networking website called Linking for a Change (www.linkingforachange.org.uk) provided practical training for school leaders and run a number of successful regional events.


We believe that learning is integral to sustainable development, indeed sustainable development doesn't just depend on learning, it is inherently a learning process.

We do not propose that learning across Government would, on its own, bring about sustainable development but we suggest that it would provide evidence that sustainable development was happening.

Effective learning relies on reflection as well as practice and the presence of a critical partner organisation, such as the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), helps to ensure that such reflection is taking place. We are therefore concerned that the withdrawal of funding from the SDC will reduce drastically the Government's capacity to learn its way forward towards its goal of being the "greenest Government ever".

In providing brief responses to the specific themes of the EAC's inquiry, we have restricted our comments to the issue of learning for sustainability and to the contribution that the SDC has made to the field of education for sustainable development.

EAC Question: How can mechanisms to ensure the sustainability of Government operations, procurement and policy-making be improved and further embedded and mainstreamed across Government departments?

While clear leadership will be required, such as that promised by Defra, it is critical that responsibilities are devolved across and within Government departments so that as many people as possible are called upon to engage with and learn from decision-making in relation to sustainable development.

Each Department needs clear rights and responsibilities in relation to sustainable development; at the very least they should be allowed to retain and further develop their own sustainable development policies and departmental action plans with Defra (or better still, an independent body) providing oversight of these.

EAC Question: How can governance arrangements for sustainable development in Government be improved, and how can sustainability reporting by Government departments be made more transparent and accountable?

Learning will inevitably involve making mistakes, which will in turn provide valuable lessons. It is important that the "critical friendship" of the SDC is not replaced with a didactic approach or worse still a "blame culture". For this reason, we strongly recommend that an independent body (or group of organisations) provides some external oversight.

EAC Question: Was the SDC successful in fulfilling its remit? Which aspects of its work have reached a natural end, or are otherwise of less importance, and which remain of particular continuing importance?

In terms of education, the SDC provided a valuable cross-sector, cross-phase overview that no single Government department appears well-positioned to replace.

More specifically, the publication of Every Child's Future Matters applied a valuable sustainability perspective to the Government's flagship education policy. If Every Child Matters does not remain central to Government thinking on education, then an updated review (from a sustainability perspective) of any new policy direction will be required. In the absence of the SDC, it is not clear who might be asked to provide this; we suggest such a task could be offered nationally through a transparent tendering process.

One piece of unfinished business: the SDC initiated the search for a national indicator for education for sustainable development on behalf of the Government (Defra); this process needs revisiting. We would suggest that the Sustainable Development Unit within the Department of Education take the lead on this.

EAC Question: In formulating a future architecture for sustainable development in Government, how can it take on board wider developments and initiatives (e.g. to develop "sustainability reporting" in departments' accounts) and the contributions that other bodies might make (e.g. Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Procurement)?

The Government should be open to learning from examples of good practice wherever these can be found, e.g. the sustainable procurement policy of Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA:

EAC Question: How, without the assistance of the SDC, will the Government be able to demonstrate that it is "the greenest government ever"?

The Government may not like or want comments from external bodies but we suggest it needs external scrutiny and comment in order to demonstrate progress towards sustainable development. Again, we strongly recommend that an independent body (or group of organisations) provides both external oversight and critical friendship to ensure that the Government achieves its vision of becoming the "greenest Government ever".

Thank you.

20 October 2010

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