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Education, equality & sustainability - learning fit for the future

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a stark light on the issue of education. Right now, we have a prime opportunity to develop our collective thoughts about what and how we learn. Key topics are:

· Equality & accessibility: how can we ensure that good education is accessible to all?

· Meaning & purpose: what actually is ‘good’ education? What is the purpose of education?

Here, we explore some links between education and sustainability, and the challenges arising through the pandemic. We’ll discuss some important aspects to nurture the future of education – and we’d love to hear your thoughts too!

Education for sustainable development

Good education is vital to achieve sustainability goals. The links between education, health and quality of life are clear – which is particularly relevant in poverty-stricken parts of both low and high income countries. Thinking about sustainability education itself, people need to be informed about social and environmental issues in order to realise that there are problems. Then we need a framing of ways to think about potential solutions, so that we can take action. Going further, consider what qualities and values our places of education encourage in young people – to what extent are they developing the ‘whole person’? How can we nurture qualities which serve sustainable development? Ultimately, what we learn influences how we think and behave.

Gaps into chasms: widening inequalities

Over 1.5 billion students around the world have been affected by school closures due to coronavirus (1). This has exposed some real inequalities between different people and communities.

As teachers moved to remote, online delivery, access to internet and digital devices became a necessity. However, only 18% of learners in sub-Saharan Africa have household internet and just 11% have a household computer (1). In the US, an analysis revealed that 40% of Black students and 30% of Hispanic students received no online instruction during the first 3 months of lockdown, compared to 10% of White students. In the UK, an Ofcom estimate suggests that 1.1-1.8 million children do not have access to a computer, laptop or tablet at home. With the increasing drive towards digital education, these ‘digital divides’ – due to racial and socio-economic differences – have the potential to widen pre-existing gaps and further restrict people’s access to improved life opportunities.

Effective learning also requires an environment conducive to focused and enjoyable study. Not every household provides this – a friend of mine tutors some children who meet him in virtual ‘class’ from their bathroom floor, as the only available quiet space in their house. Other children living with adults who are mentally unwell, drug or alcohol dependant or abusive have struggled immeasurably during this time. Also consider students with disabilities, mental health issues or additional needs, kinaesthetic learners, and those with practical or vocational interests. We see that the young people who are more deeply disadvantaged by the pandemic are those who are already disadvantaged in society: people of colour, low-income households, those with disabilities, mental health issues and unsafe homes, and those with vocational and less traditionally ‘academic’ skills.

We’re not just here to read and write…

The pandemic has also reminded us that schools and colleges provide much more than academic education. They provide hot meals – for some, the only proper meal of the day. They provide welfare support and a safe space for experimentation. Many provide outdoor space to exercise and connect with nature. Then there are the all-important friendships, social learning and cultural exchanges. Again, it’s clear that many young people who are already disadvantaged in some way will have suffered more through lack of access to these over the past year.

Looking ahead: how do we shape our future?

“COVID-19 has prompted us to recall that fragility also generates awareness, sensitivity to our interdependencies, and can be a wellspring for hope” (1)

These issues make up a complex tapestry, and are not straightforward to address. But at their roots, equality, education and sustainability all relate to creating a world of holistic flourishing. And since they are all interwoven, impacting one issue can impact the others. Drawing on a recent report by the International Commission on the Futures of Education (ICFE) and an article from the Royal Society for Arts (RSA), let’s explore some of the ingredients for education which delivers on wellbeing goals.

Position sustainability centrally – ensuring that young people have an awareness of our deep interconnectedness with all nature and are empowered with the skills to create a thriving future.

Embrace places of education as community and cultural centres. Build upon their provision of social and cultural services, such as enhancing opportunities to help young people develop positive relationships, eat well, connect with nature and undertake place-based projects in the local community.

Learning which develops the whole Self. What is the purpose of education? What kinds of skills and qualities do we think education should nurture? We need to explore learning which develops young people’s abilities to live ethically and harmoniously.

Value learning pathways. Not every useful life skill can be assessed with an exam. How can we validate qualities like adaptability, creativity, resilience and empathy? The RSA’s Cities of Learning programme proposes that we create ‘badges’ (micro-credentials) for skills and qualities, which can be earned during a course or project.

Respect teachers and their freedom. Over the last year we have realised the value of our professional teachers and witnessed great creativity, resourcefulness and compassion. Allowing them the freedom to innovate and engage students in uniquely contextualised ways will enable them to embody their fuller roles as facilitators and guides, to unlock students’ full potential.

Nurture genuine relationships. We’ve learnt that access to learning is not the same as progression in learning: learning needs to be grounded in real relationships between students and teachers. We can even expand our concept of ‘teachers’ – a vegetable garden is a great teacher of biology, systems thinking, patience and gratitude.

Judicious use of digital technology. Questioning: when is digital learning appropriate? Technology must serve the goals of good and inclusive education. Any digital transitions need to be carefully shaped by teachers, students and those with civic responsibility.

Protect the sacred space of education. Learning environments need to be safe spaces to explore, take risks, learn about diversity, experience other ways of ‘knowing, doing and being’, and to allow young people to realise who they want to become.

Support less resourced countries to develop sustainably. Simply put, “we cannot accept the levels of inequality that have been permitted to emerge on our shared planet” (ICFE, 2020, p.3). Standing in solidarity as one global humanity, we need to support every country to attain true wellbeing for people and nature.

What next? Talk – think – share

Talk about the ideas here with friends, family, colleagues and your place of education. We need to build shared visions of future education so that we can take steps towards them. It’s even likely that we’ll need to reframe the SDG 4 indicators for Quality Education.

Get inspired by some examples of organisations making change happen here in the UK:

· The Black Mountains College in Wales aims to deliver a degree and vocational courses in ways which develop imagination and critical judgement and transform our understanding of ‘planet-centric’ education.

· The London Interdisciplinary School centres learning around real-world issues such as plastic pollution and global pandemics. It has an accessible admissions process and students benefit from gaining hybrid skills and a genuine understanding of interconnectedness.

· The Universities for Nottingham initiative aims to further social, economic and environmental prosperity by deepening collaboration and the place-based connections of Nottingham’s universities, colleges and schools.

Share your ideas and news of other initiatives with us! By working together, we can further action on quality education and connect up people and projects. We would love to hear from you.

“COVID-19 has the potential to radically reshape our world, but we must not passively sit back and observe what plays out. Now is the time for public deliberation and democratic accountability. Now is the time for intelligent collective action.”

~ Her Excellency Sahle-Work Zewde, President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia & Chair of the ICFE


1. International Commission on the Futures of Education, UNESCO (2020) Education in a post-COVID world: nine ideas for public action. Available at:

2. Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health (2014) Why education matters to health: exploring the causes. Available at:

3. Oxfam International (2019) The power of education to fight inequality: How increasing educational equality and quality is crucial to fighting economic and gender inequality. Available at:

4. The Earth Charter International (2020). Available at:

5. Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J. and Viruleg, E. (2020) COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: the hurt could last a lifetime. Available at:

6. Vibert, S. (2020) Children without internet access during lockdown. Available at:

7. Partridge, L. (2020) No school an island. Available at:

8. Kenyon, T. (2020) 4 lessons for the future of lifelong learning. Available at:

9. RSA (2021) Cities of Learning. Available at:

10. Delors, J. Al Mufti, I., Amagi, I. et al. (1996) Learning: the treasure within. Available at:

11. Institute for Statistics, UNESCO (2020) Revising SDG4 indicators in anticipation of post-COVID changes in education systems. Available at:

12. Black Mountains College (2021). Available at:

13. London Interdisciplinary School (2021). Available at:

14. Universities for Nottingham (2021). Available at:

Photo credit: Baim Hanif on Unsplash

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