Primary Level Engagement in Sustainability

With 2030 drawing closer, the need to encourage the current and future generations to get involved in sustainability is becoming more urgent. Sustainability has been on the forefront of news and discussion for several years but for the current generation of adults, it's not something that we have grown up with. Consequently, it is not something thought of naturally and is seemingly tabooed amongst some groups of people.

Settings which employ qualified Early Years Teachers are more likely to encourage children to engage in more complex play and creative activities, showing that primary schools are an ideal place to introduce new ideas and teaching methods to children (Howes 1997). Not only will this improve the children's development of new concepts, but also their cognitive and communication skills, meaning they are more likely to meet the expected skill level in latter school years.

According to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Early Childhood Development is seen as "one of the most cost efficient investments in human capital which leads to a country's sustainable development" (UNICEF 2013). We could embed the ideas of sustainability throughout the lives of the entire population as attending school is compulsory in the UK, potentially leading to many lifetimes of progress towards a truly sustainable future with high rates of return not only for individuals but also societies, countries and the planet as a whole. The breadth of sustainability allows for potential progress in every walk of life. With the majority of the population galvanised to make steps towards the sustainability of our planet, the achievement of the SDGs becomes a more realistic ambition. Without taking the opportunity to guide and educate young minds on sustainability, we are risking the consequences of inaction: widespread hunger and poverty; discrimination based on gender, race and location; medical treatments only for those who have the money to pay for it. In short, an unequal world where you have to win the genetic lottery to be born in the right place, at the right time to be able to live with freedom and human rights.

The evidence leads to the question: why is sustainability not embedded into the English National Curriculum? By embedding the topics of sustainability, we can raise awareness of the impacts that each individual experiences in everyday life. A captive audience absorbing information and knowledge – this is surely a valuable audience we are missing out on.

Whilst the English National Curriculum does not embed sustainability, Scotland is leading the United Kingdom is educating the population at primary school level. Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence currently has seven focuses for development, one of which is Learning for Sustainability (Scottish Government 2018).

Sustainability is a core part of the Health and Wellbeing curricular area (along with literacy and numeracy). At an Edinburgh Primary School, they run sustainability groups for two terms. The groups contain students from different year groups mixed together to encourage collaboration and develop a range of ideas and strategies.

The aim of the project is to help children learn that every small step towards a huge goal is a step in the right direction, and that they can each make a difference, with the intention that the next generation grow up being mindful of the world as a whole and how we can work together to ensure its future. It is vitally important that young people are invested in bettering their world around them and that learning needs to start as soon as possible in school.

This year, each group was allocated a different Global Goal and then the students were allowed to choose which group to be a part of, and architect the journey the group will take. One group of 25 children from P1–3 (approximate age range 3–7) chose Sustainable Development Goal 2, Zero Hunger, and have decided to focus on helping people in Scotland. After much debate between the students, they have decided to grow their own food and write instructions for others to be able to do the same. Alongside this they would like to support food banks and educate people about the impacts of food waste and how to prevent it.

Sustainability is a continually changing topic with regular updates due to the constant progress being made. Up–to–date research is needed to keep up with the changes, which evidence suggests is beneficial to both the teachers and students [Figure 1]. Teachers engaging in research evidence have been said to be more "open–minded to change" and "reflective" which means they deliver classes that are perceived to be "more targeted, interesting and varied". For students, there is a wider culture of engaging in continuous learning, enquiry and improvement (National Foundation for Educational Research 2014).

Figure 1: Perceived benefits of engagement in research evidence (National Foundation for Educational Research 2014)

In March, the Primary School will hold a celebratory assembly where each group will share what they have achieved over the two terms. The assembly will be a fantastic opportunity for the children to learn about some of the other areas of sustainability that they have not personally worked on, whilst also giving them a presentation opportunity to be proud of the achievements that they have made.

It can be argued that Quality Education (SDG4) is the first step towards solving all the Sustainable Development Goals. With education we can raise awareness, stimulate minds and cultivate new ideas to help us achieve our goals for a better future.

The case study of this one Edinburgh Primary School, together with the research evidence demonstrates the wider advantages of incorporating a student led Sustainability programme into the compulsory curriculum of other nations. The benefits to the sustainability agenda are significant, but so are the benefits to schools and the individual children's development.


The author would like to thank Juniper Green Primary School, Edinburgh for sharing the details of their sustainability project to involve their students in the development of solutions to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.


Howes, C. 1997. "Children's experience in center–based child care as a function of teacher background and adult–child ratio." Merrill–Palmer Quarterly (43): 404–425.

National Foundation for Educational Research. 2014. "Teachers' Use of Research Evidence: A case study of United Learning Schools." National Foundation for Educational Research. July. Accessed November 12, 2017. https://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/IMUL01/IMUL01.pdf.

Scottish Government. 2018. Curriculum for Excellence. 28 June. Accessed November 12, 2017. http://www.gov.scot/Topics/Education/Schools/curriculum.

UNICEF. 2013. Early Childhood. 16 July. Accessed November 12, 2017. https://www.unicef.org/earlychildhood/index_69851.html.