Monday 4 April 2011

Possible streams of effort to carry Common Cause forward within the education sector

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Morgan Phillips:

It is my strong personal belief that the sustainability sector1 is too small and too powerless to create a mainstream shift towards sustainable lifestyles on its own. Such a shift would require a dramatic modification of the values of the entire population and the sustainability movement is only a very tiny shaper of those values. The forces that drive and embed self-interest and therefore consumerism in our society are numerous, complexly interrelated and self reinforcing. This is not to say they can't be challenged, they are and can be; I'll discuss how a little later.

Following on from discussions on March 11th, 19th, 20th and 21st that I’ve been having in various ‘Common Cause’ meetings I want to suggest two streams of effort that those interested might want to join together to pursue. They are related and mutually reinforcing but need not be pursued in any particular order, I am therefore naming them the RED and BLUE streams.

RED stream - Getting our own house in order

As a sector1, and as Common Cause points out, what we absolutely must not do is be complicit in reinforcing damaging self-enhancing values. Heaven knows they are reinforced enough elsewhere! So, no longer, for example, should we encourage environmental behaviours by preying on cost and time saving motivators, however tempting such short-cuts can be. There is a very real need for us to get our own houses in order. No matter how difficult and challenging it might be, this must be the path we set out on. We must do this for several reasons, one not least of which being that if we are playing on self-interest to further our agendas, we are in effect - as respected ‘universalists’ - further legitimizing hyper-individualism2.

The first task in getting our houses in order is to communicate to the sector as a whole the necessity of actually doing this. Waste Watch’s collaborative Sustainable Lifestyles framework and its initial discussion paper 'Working from values'3 provides a very useful starting point for us. The 'next steps' of that project will explore the issues in more depth and contribute further advice, through research and best practice case studies, to help the sector as a whole to modify its approach. Tim has called for others to come forward to help him develop these next steps; it is up to us to respond to that call.

However, dissemination, I feel, must not be restricted to PDF files and online forums. Face-to-face contact in the form of one-to-one conversations, workshops, action research and ‘work experience’4 need to happen as budgets allow. Several networks5 exist to make dissemination possible, we should use as many as possible to ensure we reach all corners of the sector.

The shift in practice called for will not happen overnight, there are many obstacles6 to overcome. As advocates and consultants7 we can catalyse a change in practice - the shift is already in motion, we need to help it gather speed until it snowballs.

Getting our own house in order is crucial not only to improving the efficacy and long term impacts of our own work, but will also allow us to carry out the BLUE stream more effectively.

BLUE streamEngaging the wider education sector

Formal education in the UK is beset with many difficulties8; many argue that it is not fit for purpose. Schools are filled with disengaged students, frustrated teachers and worried parents. The formal education system is ripe for transformation and we need to get along side those calling for change, find common ground and combine with them to become a powerful and irresistible voice.

I may be a bit naive here, but I believe that if you ask teachers and parents what they want their children to grow up to be, they don’t say: image and celebrity obsessed, infantalised, hyper-hedonistic, dependent, conformist, selfish capitalist consumers. They are probably more likely to want them to be: creative, kind, independent, community spirited, mature, intelligent, caring and selfless young citizens. If they do want them to be the latter they have an enormous role to play in nurturing them and making it possible9.

As we know children and adults are surrounded by self-enhancing values. Adam Curtis called the 20th Century the Century of the Self 10; the 21st Century shows no sign of being any different. We are taught to look out for number one, to buy large houses and fast cars, expensive holidays and designer clothes. We have status anxiety, debt and boring jobs. Consumerism, for many, is an escape, a temporary relief and a way of life. Self-enhancing values are reinforced constantly, by celebrities, public figures, script writers, musicians, academics, teachers, parents, brothers, sisters and friends. Often it is done inadvertently, it is so embedded in our culture that our ‘natural’ behaviour unwittingly reinforces self-enhancing values.

But, every time we hold a door open for someone, lend an ear to a friend in need, give our family members a lift to the shops or organise a birthday party for someone close to us we reinforce self-transcendent values, all is not lost! Our learning institutions have a very important role to play in helping children and young people to decipher the world around them. Teachers can help children to celebrate the joy of giving and caring for others. Teachers can help children to understand their emotions and basic material and non-material needs. They can help them to think critically about the things that influence their values. They can marvel at the wonders of nature, science and art with them. They can nurture their creativity and bring stories of self-transcendence, rather than self-enhancement to life. They can do all this through books, films, poetry, photography, field trips, music, art, sport and history. The point is they can do it within their chosen subject, it really is not that hard and it is probably what the majority of them would actually like to do11.

The conversations I have been having with those with several years more experience of working in and around the formal education sector have led me to the following premise: Lasting change in education is more likely to happen from the bottom up. Education ministers come and go; schools and teachers stick around a lot longer (and believe or not do have some autonomy, creativity and pride in their work). Although the thinning out of the curriculum will present challenges12, it also presents opportunities. Teachers beyond the core subjects of English, Maths and Science will be freed up to express their self-direction and their creativity. They will have more freedom to decide what they teach and the resources they use. We need help them curate these and encourage them to facilitate and celebrate creativity in children. In doing so, we can hope they produce young people who are creative and caring, rather than creative and selfish! 13

If change does happen from the bottom up, we need to work out ways to engage teachers, parents and children (and perhaps civil servants). Can we go into schools and ask some fundamental questions? Why are you a teacher? Is the current education system fit for purpose? How can you change it? Are children leaving school with the skills, aptitudes and values that will help them flourish as adults in the 21st Century? What do we want our children to grow up to be?

The BLUE stream will require us to get alongside other groups who are also interested in asking these sorts of questions. Those in the arts and creative sector, those interested in children’s wellbeing, those interested in bringing New Economics into schools, those interested in introducing philosophy to children, those interested in reclaiming Sport as an environmentally benign and community building pastime. We need to identify these groups and link with them. There are workshops, weekend retreats for teachers and parents, discussion papers, books, documentaries and so on to be made. What will these look like? How can we modify existing approaches and create new ones?


I hope this is useful and helps focus efforts. I am keen to hear your feedback, tell me if I am being unrealistic or idealistic! The RED stream may well be the easiest one to navigate, but the BLUE stream is where the real opportunity for change seems to lie, I recommend doing both.

If you can think of a GREEN or indeed YELLOW stream to add to this, please offer it up! I look forward to hearing from you.


1. The sector I’m referring to here includes all those working in education for sustainable development, development education and environmental education. Most specifically those who engage with schools in the UK.

2. ‘Hyper-Individualism’ is a phrase I am borrowing here from Bill McKibben’s (2007) book ‘Deep Economy’.

3. ‘Working from values’ available from: I’m sure you can also contact Tim Burns directly to request a copy.

4. There is no better way to learn about a new approach than to witness it firsthand. I hope organisations pioneering this approach will open their doors to fellow practioners.

5. Networks: Sustainable Schools Alliance, SHED, PRISM, Compass Network, Common Cause, LEEF, HEEN, Project Dirt, Sustainable Lifestyles, IES, The Green Party, NEF etc, etc. [Please add to this list].

6. Obstacles to change within sector: Funding hoops to jump through, Culturally embedded practice, Audience expectations, Time, Resources, Ignorance of funders/educators(!), Heavy emphasis on actions, desperation and impatience.... (I researched this during my PhD studies)

7. As momentum for a shift begins to occur, there is likely to be a role for advocates and consultants who can help organisations and individuals to modify their work. Advocates and consultants will need to be trained and resourced to do this.

8. Problems with formal education sector. For a brief summary just watch Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA Animate: Please feedback to me with other good critiques.

9. I argue this more fully, but from a Higher Education perspective here:

10. Adam Curtis’ BBC Century of the Self documentary series details the rise of Public Relations and is well worth watching, you should be able to find it here and you can often get DVDs of it on EBay.

11. My personal website: is a collection of resources and ideas to be used by teachers of all subjects who wish to explore values, wellbeing and sustainability; it hopefully demonstrates how wide education for sustainability actually is / could be.

12. The core concern I heard raised at the recent launch of the Sustainable Schools Alliance is that schools will become preoccupied in achieving success in the small range of core subjects, therefore lessening the emphasis they put on more peripheral subjects, especially sustainability.

13. I have just written a piece titled: Creative and Caring, or Creative and Selfish:

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