Education and sustainability: what we know and what we need to do

Girls wash their hands outside their classroom in the the Government run United Methodist School in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Schools throughout Sierra Leone, including this one, were closed for eight months at the height of the Ebola crisis.

CREDIT: Kate Holt/GEM Report

Education and sustainability: what we know and what we need to do

The preceding section has showcased the many links between education and sustainable development. They suggest that the benefits of completing primary and secondary education are substantial, not only for individuals but for their families, communities and workplaces. More educated men and women tend to be more environmentally aware, more resilient to the impact of climate change, more productive and income generating, and more likely to live healthy lives, be politically engaged and exercise control over their lives. The benefits of educating girls and women are numerous and intergenerational.

There is concern that evolving global conditions are altering education’s effects. The world economy, for example, has created enormous wealth for some but left many behind, their lives and livelihoods vulnerable to economic dislocation, persistent poverty or both. Economic down cycles exacerbate political insecurity and conflict, forcing millions to flee. Dislocation due to natural disasters and climate change undermines country efforts to ensure all young people complete at least 12 years of education and to provide ample opportunity for lifelong learning.

For education to be transformative in support of the new sustainable development agenda, ‘education as usual’ will not suffice. Learning should foster thinking that is relational, integrative, empathetic, anticipatory and systemic. Schools should become exemplary spaces that breathe sustainability – inclusive, democratic, healthy, carbon-neutral places that lay the foundation for achieving the SDGs.

The policy recommendations below suggest how education systems can contribute more effectively to sustainable development.

  • Support collaborations and synergies across all sectors and partners. Since systemic problems require multiple actors and diverse perspectives, stronger efforts are needed to involve all partners at the local and national level and across sectors. Finance and planning ministries need to engage in more systemic planning. Education ministries should be better linked with ministries of health, gender, environment and labour. Education experts need to learn from and work with civil society and communities, which already carry out an impressive array of education and training. Stronger focus is required on crosssector collaboration and integrated perspectives in the activities of civil society and the private sector, as well as in urban planning and research and development strategies. The private sector, civil society, multiple sectors of government activity and international actors should work together to fund various facets of education, since education matters for all aspects of sustainable development.
  • Integrate formal and non-formal education and training into government efforts to tackle complex problems. Education can be an important tool for capacity-building in all public sectors. Many of the Sustainable Development Goal targets will require the specialized skills and expertise education can provide, for instance in water management or addressing global health and climate risks. The case for education interventions should focus on both immediate and longer-term cross-sector benefits that education solutions can provide, so that funds additional to those traditionally targeted for education can be used.
    Governments and other stakeholders also need to better investigate and invest in combinations of integrated interventions that are likely to have multiplier effects for several development outcomes, including education. Investment is particularly needed in low income countries so they can build their own expertise by improving higher education and vocational institutions, as well as informal adult learning initiatives.
  • Education can be an important means of reducing inequality but cannot be seen as the sole solution. Making primary and secondary education of good quality widely accessible can enable large numbers of individuals and their families to raise their incomes above the poverty line. Expanding educational opportunities to marginalized groups and further reducing gender inequality in the school system are crucial to reduce disparity in labour market outcomes, much of which is accounted for by lower levels of attainment. Policy-makers must ensure that changes in labour market institutions, such as technological progress and easing of labour market restrictions, do not excessively penalize lower income individuals, who are disproportionally employed in lower paying and less secure jobs, often in the informal sector. At the same time, cooperation across all sectors of society and the economy is needed to reduce prejudice and any policy-related obstacles to full economic participation by women and minority groups.
For education to truly be transformative, ‘education as usual’ will not suffice Click to Tweet
  • Increase the level and predictability of education system financing. Education funding needs to be both adequate and predictable to ensure the provision of good quality primary and secondary education, especially to marginalized groups. This would entail ensuring appropriate inputs and teachers, and transforming school systems to better inculcate values of social and environmental sustainability in addition to a specific set of cognitive skills. Improved financing is also critical to support non-formal and informal learning initiatives instead of waiting for the longer-term effects of formal systems. Such initiatives are often innovative, localized, targeted to adults and capable of helping address pressing issues such as disaster risk resilience and conflict prevention.

More specifically, stakeholders working to promote the sustainable development agenda should consider the following actions to expand education’s focus and create more equitable opportunities for all:


In order to lessen environmental degradation and the impact of climate change:

  • Develop whole-school approaches that promote environmental teaching, learning, planning and operations by drawing attention to the ties between the environment, economy and culture.
  • Provide disaster risk-resilience training in schools and equip learners with the means to support communities in times of disasters.
  • Fund efforts to ensure that education infrastructure is resilient to climate change.
  • Engage community elders in curricular development and school governance, produce appropriate learning materials and prepare teachers to teach in mother languages.
  • Promote the value of indigenous livelihoods, traditional knowledge and community-managed or -owned land through actions such as land conservation and locally relevant research.
  • Initiate large-scale awareness campaigns that ‘nudge’ people to engage in sustainability practices and behaviour.
  • Work with community and religious leaders to spread ideas about environmental stewardship, and incentivize companies that incorporate sustainability into workplace practices.
  • Scale up non-formal education initiatives promoting family planning and maternal well-being.
  • Increase funding of research and development that promote technological innovations in energy, agriculture and food systems.
Education can be an important means of reducing inequality but cannot be seen as the sole solution Click to Tweet


In order to reduce poverty and stimulate green and inclusive economies:

  • Invest in teaching green skills in formal and non-formal programmes. Coordinate green-focused curricula through cooperation between education and training systems, policy-makers and industry.
  • Train and support teachers and instructors at all education levels and in the workplace to enable learners to acquire green skills.
  • Ensure universal access to good quality education that emphasizes skills and competencies for entry into economically productive, environmentally sustainable industries.
  • Develop short-term strategies focused on workforce retraining and upskilling, together with longerterm strategies to improve or revise curricula in secondary education, initial higher education and vocational training.
  • Incentivize universities to produce graduates and researchers who address large-scale systemic challenges through creative thinking and problem-solving.
  • Promote cooperation across all sectors to reduce policy-related obstacles to full economic participation by women or minority groups, as well as discrimination and prejudice that also act as barriers.
All schools should provide meals, access to water and sanitation, adequate gender-specific toilets and childfriendly spaces Click to Tweet


In order to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment:

  • Target marginalized groups consistently left behind by adequately redistributing existing resources and ramping up funds to improve access to good quality education.
  • Support strong investment in early childhood care and education, especially for infants and toddlers, who gain lifelong benefits from participation in integrated interventions combining stimulation with health care and nutrition supplementation.
  • Promote partnerships between education ministries and ministries responsible for health, water and sanitation, and gender issues, to help simultaneously improve multiple, linked and connected outcomes.
  • Fund integrated delivery of basic services in schools. Ensure that all schools provide meals, access to water and sanitation, adequate gender-specific toilets and child-friendly spaces, and can deliver curricular interventions focused on behavioural change, such as hygiene education, sexual and reproductive health education, and obesity prevention education.
  • Provide awareness campaigns and training to boost innovation in service delivery, such as e-government and participatory budgeting.
  • Fund community-oriented education and training programmes in relation to health and sanitation.
  • Ensure all girls complete primary and secondary education to promote their autonomy and decisionmaking abilities.
  • Invest in programmes that address gender stereotypes and roles by engaging men and women in group education sessions, youth-led campaigns and multipronged empowerment approaches.
  • Support media-based awareness campaigns, the development of positive role models and other initiatives to change gender norms inside and outside the education system.
  • Support efforts to improve participation of girls and women in science, technology, arts and design, and mathematics so as to improve employment prospects.
  • Support social protection programmes, health policies and child-care support that improve maternal education and facilitate men’s and women’s employment-related decision-making.


In order to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies that are free from fear and violence:

  • Expand the emphasis on global citizenship and peace education in curricula.
  • Invest in civic education programmes that contribute to a functioning justice system, including participation and access for marginalized communities.
  • Promote learning emphasizing the values of tolerance and peace education to help build less violent and more constructive societies.
  • Teach in children’s mother languages. Countries with high proportions of minorities should consider training teachers in methods for teaching secondlanguage learners, in both initial teacher training and professional development.
  • For refugees and internally displaced persons, implement policies that expand the pool of qualified teachers proficient in their languages, and address the issue of official validation and certification of learning by refugees. Refugees who were teachers in their home countries could be an important resource.
  • Incorporate education into official foreign policy, transitional justice efforts and the peacebuilding agenda when trying to prevent and recover from conflict situations.
  • Ensure curricula and learning materials are not biased or prejudiced against ethnic and minority groups. Engender resilience in students and communities in post-conflict societies through curricula, teacher training, transitional justice programmes and supporting integrated schools.
  • Fund civil society organizations and other institutions that provide legal and political education in communities.
We should educate and engage with those who are disenfranchised, and include them in urban planning Click to Tweet


In order to foster sustainable, inclusive and prosperous cities and other human settlements:

  • Ensure urban areas distribute public resources equitably, including amenities and good quality teachers, so as to promote social inclusion and reduce inequality resulting from education disparity.
  • Take steps to halt segregation stemming from increased opportunities to choose between public and private schools.
  • Work to reduce school-based violence, including gender violence, and discriminatory attitudes among teachers.
  • Develop local autonomy and localized system-wide education planning, especially in populous African and Asian cities, considering education as a local as well as national issue.
  • Better incorporate education into local, national and global agendas focused on improving cities and other human settlements.
  • Educate and engage with those who are disenfranchised, include them in planning, and collaborate with civil society actors who work with them.
  • Fund schools and training programmes for slum dwellers and other disadvantaged groups who live in absolute poverty, so that assistance for them is not limited to basic services such as housing and water and sanitation.
  • Fund urban planning education to increase the numbers of planners, and promote integration of education as well as multidisciplinary approaches.
  • Improve urban planning curricula to include crosssector engagement, community engagement, learning by doing and the development of locally relevant solutions.
  • Involve communities in any processes to consolidate and improve schools in rural and other areas affected by population declines due to migration.
  • Monitor and address any unintended consequences of the growth of knowledge economies, such as gentrification and middle class flight, with strong economic and housing policies to limit social segregation and societal discontent.


In order to ensure adequate financing, policy coherence and multisector capacity:

  • Make links with tax authorities and others to improve tax-related knowledge through formal education.
  • Develop equitable funding mechanisms to address in-country disparities in education funding.
  • Use progressive public finance policies to ensure adequate funding of lower levels of education, and combine public allocations and a well-designed system of student grants and loans to finance upper levels of technical, vocational and tertiary education.
  • Increase multilateral aid mechanisms and engagement with the private sector, learning from health sector efforts to increase and diversify funding.
  • Mobilize domestic resources, stop corporate tax evasion and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies to generate government revenue for fundamental needs such as education and health.
  • Provide political and financial support for planning and implementation of education and other activities to be carried out with an integrated approach to policy and development at the national and local levels. Develop knowledge exchange programmes to learn from successful integrated policies involving education.
  • Support multistakeholder governance for the sustainable management of natural resources and of public and semi-public rural, urban and peri-urban spaces.