Towards Sustainable Schools
By Andrew Watson

The UN released the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 and ratified them at the beginning of 2016, signifying the biggest worldwide approach to tackling sustainability since the millennium (Ford, 2015). The range and scope of the goals are ambitious and call for a unified effort to tackle some of humanity’s biggest problems. Well, here we are.

In the wake of death, the current Covid-19 has wrought a pandemic of pain, suffering and, if we dare, or are allowed to, peep out of our otherwise shuttered windows in our various states of suspended animation around the world, it has also brought chronic uncertainty. However, this imposed solitude has, also brought an opportunity for meditation, self-reflection and deep introspection about the state of the world and our place in it. This piece is written less in high minded despair than in harsh appreciation for the wasteland that awaits us and in aspirational anticipation of the opportunity to re-calibrate the social contract and the belief in the potential of humans to change and to change for the better.

What are the lessons of now that we can learn, so that the future can be a better, more sustainable place? Whatever the case, it seems to be axiomatic to suggest that whatever future vision emerges now, should be reflected in a vision for education.

Education is part of the problem – today’s leadership, who all went to school, have got us into this – but also part of the solution: radical reform of the way in which tomorrow’s leaders are educated can help prepare today’s students for the challenge they will face. As a key part of the system, the education sector needs to reflect hard, and fast, on its priorities: on what the experience of teaching and learning provides for young people: on the “why, how, where and what” of education, as well as the standards it sets in terms of its culture, leadership and role-modelling, in pursuit of a better, more peaceful, more sustainable world. At which point I should acknowledge my bias. There is an underlying assumption here, that the pursuit of a better, more peaceful, more sustainable world can a) be envisioned in tangible terms and b) is something worth committing to; an assumption, it would appear, that is by no means shared by all the world’s political leadership.

During Sustainability Education’s inaugural European summit in Berlin in May 2019, Climate Change expert Professor Johann Rockström talked of sustainability being “at a renaissance moment”. With the Covid-19 crisis engulfing the world, it appears we all are. So is education. Now is the time to re-imagine, reconsider, re-think, and reboot how a vision of the future can be nurtured by an experience of education. If, as GK Chesterton suggested, education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another, then what kind of soul do we wish to nurture, cherish and inherit?

Global problems require global solutions. If the problems are interconnected, then so should the systems be. Into this context, emerge the leaders of education. What should their priorities be?

  1. Understand your Ecosystem

  2. Put human relationships at the heart of your organisation

  3. Develop a prophetic vision

  4. Read the Game

  5. Imagine and create a meaningful experience of education


1.  Understand your Ecosystem (consider the system)

Ecosystems are more than a number of interconnected elements. They are comprised of dynamic, evolving, interdependent parts. The educational ecosystem is made up of a number of elements:

  • The Chronosystem (the influence of time): the evolution of reform patterns across time.

  • The Macrosystem (overarching beliefs): the economic and political agenda; ideas about a knowledge society.

  • The Exosystem (the indirect, external environment): National | government policies; external agencies – for accreditation and validation, including, in international education, the Council of International Schools (CIS) and the International Baccalaureate (IB); restraints on spending; parental demands and expectations

  • The Mesosystem (the interaction of microsystem and environment). The professional learning/organisational culture of the school.

  • The Microsystem (the immediate environment). The actions and interactions of school leaders, teachers, staff, parents, governors and students.

The most important parts will always be human. In fact, they will mostly be to do with children and therefore, the emphasis in any decision-making process, should hold their interests at its centre.

One emerging piece of learning from the Covid-19 crisis seems to be recognition (in the best sense of the term – we “know it again”) of the equality of labour and our interdependence on each other. The Doctor, the Nurse, the Paramedic, the Bin-Man, the Shelf-Stacker, the Farmer, (suddenly I’m in danger of missing somebody out), the Teacher, the Student. Our organisation structures should diffuse power and increasingly reflect the egalitarian nature of interdependency.

What we do in schools echoes through the community. Where there is impact in one area, it is felt in all others. Schools, in whatever form they take, (because in the future they will not be housed in one physical place) need to recognise their role as epicentres of a community. They should be actively involved at the heart of the local community. Sustainability thinking in ecosystems considers, understands and is ready to respond to the entire web of relationships: it involves a whole community. Leaders need to appreciate who comprise their ecosystems; students, parents, teachers, local, regional and international partners.

Be sustainable; build in mechanisms for ensuring continuity in the organisation. Empower others, work collaboratively; team teach, share roles. Ensure that responsibilities, as far as possible, are shared and that the organisation is not over dependent on individuals. Share your systems and sustainability thinking with your colleagues. Make your maps of connectivity visible. Enable educators to understand themselves in their own system context(s) and give them the tools to transform their teaching practice by making connections that reflect systems theory.


2.  Put human relationships at the heart of your organisation

Schools are above all, human organisations. Education has to provide a hearth where the community comes together, without fear. The experience of being together, should help us to realise that we are here, above all, as Einstein proposed; “For the sake of each other, upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we connect with a bond of sympathy”. Our experiences should help nurture understanding of how much our own “outer and inner lives are built upon the labours of others, both living and dead, and how earnestly we must exert ourselves in order to give in return as much as we have received and are receiving”.

As educators we need to teach and model the skills, tools, practices of sound mental and emotional wellbeing and health. Therefore, as practitioners we also need to learn about wellbeing ourselves, not as a cursory gesture to something peripheral, but as a commitment to a central and essential dimension of what it means to be human. We also need to intentionally and skilfully create communities that maximally promote and nurture good mental and emotional health. We need to reclaim, regain and remember agency about what are normal, functional emotional responses to events in life and be able to distinguish them from pathological responses.

We need to nurture wellbeing. We need to centralise wellbeing. The apparent surge in a sense of community that has arisen during Covid-19 cannot be allowed to subside into disinterest and narrow selfishness when it is over. That goes for governments too (some are still struggling with the first part of the equation).

A village primary school I volunteered with for many years had rather a wonderful question posted in their hall; “If you could be anything in the world, what would it be?” “Be kind” was the answer. “Easier said than done” you might respond. In the maelstrom of daily existence, where we might sometimes even forget to say “Good morning” to a loved one in the morning, how realistic is it to expect us, and those around us, to maintain at least semblance of decency to those around us, if being human also means being “authentic”. Well you can still say “Good morning” and in response to the hopefully inevitable follow up question “How are you?” you can quite reasonably respond; “Dreadful, but thanks for asking” or “Extraordinary” as the case may be. Authenticity is surely an essential foundation on which to build trust. Even if it’s bad news, tell it like it is. Don’t sugar-coat. Clear, consistent communication that is open, honest and transparent is the basis on which necessary trust can be built between students, staff, parents and partners. During the Covid-19 crisis, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been consistently concise in her simply presentation of facts and direct in her communication. Notwithstanding the idea that different situations require different responses and that “style flexibility” (Blandford & Shaw, 2000) is a necessary attribute for success in leadership, at the heart of authentic, transparent communication are human values of personal responsibility and integrity, mutual responsibility and respect.

Trust is an essential component of working together towards a common purpose. And moral purpose is what working in education is surely, all about. But cultivating authenticity is not easy in a world where conflict is omnipresent, because fear, anxiety and mistrust are never far away. Let me say a bit more about this. Conflict is around us at different levels, constantly. Who does the washing up? Whose turn is it to change the diapers? Who is going to give way at the lights? Who arrived at the photocopier first? Why do I have to “do duty”? Whose “fault” is it? Acknowledging the different kinds of conflict and learning about the subject is essential in avoiding, resolving and transforming it. Dispute is necessary in responsible decision making. The world emerging from Covid-19, is likely, as economies fail and socio-cultural tensions are exploited by unscrupulous narrow, self-seeking populist politicians, to become more fractious, anxiety more evident, conflict more prevalent, both intra (within) families, organisations and states as well as inter-states, as globalisation shrinks. The emotional intelligence and knowledge of how to transcend and transform conflict will need to be taught. We cannot rely on it to be “caught”.

3.  Develop a prophetic vision

The Sustainable Development Goals exist for a reason. The result of focussed, organised, inspired collaboration over time by experts from vital and interconnected sectors around the globe, they can be regarded as a pinnacle of human hope. The achievement is something that is down to us.

A virtual stroll along the bookshelves of bookshops reveals a veritable smorgasbord of advice from Gurus, Academics Sporting heroes, Politicians and Quacks, on the nature of leadership and the inherent virtue, nay necessity, of imagining a vision of where you want to get to and a mission, no less, for how you want to get there, accompanied more often than not, by map of “Guiding Principles”. If you detect a note of scepticism in relation to this you’d be right. Meta-scepticism, perhaps, as I’m adding to the smorgasbord as I write. But it’s healthy scepticism, a mindset that we have to nurture. On one hand, moving and uplifting, even inspiring stories are something that as a “chief storytellers” in a school, leaders have to encourage, nurture and tell. We need to move, as Pi Patel does, beyond “yeastless factuality” towards a “better story”. On the other hand, we should be careful of encouraging uncritical allegiance, in pursuit of a “mission”. Are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has been regarded as successful in the past - do you dare to be different? (Torres). The road of complacency is a dangerous one indeed, in times of uncertainty. Leadership teams should be characterised by creative tension, where the critical challenge of process is encouraged and becomes a necessary part of how decisions are made.

The place of visionary speculation is central to ideas about education. Do we dare to dream? What does a dream for education look like? For leaders in education, this means there is both an imperative and opportunity to develop meaningful, reciprocal and sustainable partnerships with organisations where both can benefit and learn from the association.

Schools are learning organisations which need to think in generational terms. Covid-19 only re-emphasises the interconnectedness of the world, so maintaining a sense of global consciousness is essential if we are going to send young people into  a world where they do not just survive, but thrive – and help others to do the same. A willingness to adapt and change reflected in a cultural mindset that embraces the challenge of process and orthodoxy. The courage to make human relationships the priority, where the experience of education for all members of the community teachers them, above all, to serve ideas beyond the self. To develop the capacity to understand and respond to the frightening immediacy of climate change. To contribute to a world where population growth among myriad global trends present impediments and where technology, if handled responsibly, creates hitherto unseen potential that can contribute to solving the problems that we and our leaders, have made for ourselves. And we need to be ready and prepared to respond quickly and decisively and to “read the game”.


4.  Be Innovative/Read the Game

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. A troubling prism through which to view the past, which simultaneously presents us all with the opportunity not to make the same mistakes again, or more importantly, the same kind of mistakes. For whilst we can make practical plans for pragmatic responses to crises, we also need to develop the capacity to think nimbly, communicate coherently, act decisively and to anticipate change, to “read the game”. For pragmatic, add “Pandemic” to the list of evacuation drills. These are in the current context, life saving skills. Fortunately we also have a map, called the SDG, to guide us.

“Reading the game” has always been an essential part of the portfolio of skills for surviving and thriving in sectors from politics, economics, science, the arts and possibly most visibly, in sports, from soccer, to cricket, to basketball, to chess. Reading the game is the ability to predict the shape of the future based on the shape of the present. It is a mindset that allows us to move on to the next challenge, once we have savoured, for a brief moment, the success of the current moment. It enables us to keep our eye on the horizon, to consciously embrace the positive energy of what it means to be slightly paranoid and a healthy neurotic and so to consider, reflect and plan for both best and worst case scenarios. It “keeps us on our toes”. We should nurture a mindful approach to existence that allows me to respond to situations with alacrity and a cool head. Knee-jerk responses are best avoided. It takes a special kind of character to be able to model Camus; “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

There seems to be a trend in strategic planning in organisations to move in scope from 5 to 3 years, and why not, considering how much work goes into a strategic plan and how Covid-19 has decimated so many of them. However, there are some essential dimensions of a strategic plan, which simply can never be overlooked. First and last, financial wellbeing. The impact of Covid-19 on the purse of education in the private sector in particular, promises to be crushing. As supply chains dry up and parents are unable to meet their fee commitments, schools still have to meet their own commitments to staff salaries, infrastructure upkeep and the move to online teaching and learning.

No doubt those who decry the very existence of private schools, might relish a moment of schadenfreude as schools which are market driven and market dependent, are driven out of existence. A natural wastage in the grand capitalist scheme of things; and we need to be aware of the interconnectedness of sectors. But there are human casualties along the way and this is what we need to mitigate against.

I have been involved with two schools, both in the international sector, which have been cast into existential crisis as a result of having insecure financial foundations. The first was cast into crisis but the sudden departure of one of its founding funders; an international body, ostensibly the ideological leader in international education, in whose name the school was ostensibly set up in the first place. Emergency and austerity budgets ensued and we existed on a year-to-year basis, during which time the Governing Board sought short, medium and long term funding solutions. However, it wasn’t until the Board started an endowment, with a vision that would secure the financial wellbeing of the school in perpetuity, that the school was able to plan for than a year in advance.

The second has been wholly dependent on a sole proprietor in a developing country emerging from a dark past. The financials procedures have hitherto been opaque at best, something that a nascent Governing Board has been trying to address, to move towards financial independence. Covid-19 caught us in the solar-plexus of the process. One of the two schools has had to close the secondary section, all staff have had their salaries and emoluments cut by an average of 60% and many staff are stranded in a country they would, at this moment, rather not be in.

What are the implications of these implications? Could we have done things differently? Should we have ready the game better? Possibly, probably. It is certainly of no comfort to know that many schools around the world are experiencing similar existential crises. Even being part or a larger group of schools, is no guarantee that the school will survive. There is no longer safety in numbers.

For prudent risk management, it is essential that schools create health, fiscal, and educational plans for the 2020-21 academic year now—to offset the many and varied likely negative effects of Covid-19. In the private sector, fee structures will need to change, to create contingencies. Longer term planning will include endowments and other investment strategies which feed off the current global financial systems, spread risk and create insurance against their collapse. Deploy sustainability thinking. As we learn the lessons of this isolation, there are significant implications for how we manage infrastructure, pay our employees and secure the long term viability of what we are doing. Notwithstanding labour laws, school might reflect that they can quite reasonably change the ration of teachers to students, as they maintain a significant online dimension to teaching and learning. Schools thinking “outside the box” might very well come to realise that the whole concept of housing  a school in “buildings” as manufacturing hosts its work in factories, is no longer necessary. Rather, infrastructure can be re-thought as a community hub for multi-purpose use, whilst work that requires specialist space, such as a Chemistry lab, can be rented by the hour, much as accompany might rent a meeting space in any given city.

Then there is technology. Covid-19 has accelerated the move towards a reconstituted balance between online and face-to-face learning. Groups such as Kognity, Pamoja, InThinking can be regarded as “ahead of the curve” in the provision dedicated of online teaching and learning and resources, whilst Google are among many with interactive, dynamic platforms, where creative and imaginative practice takes place. A redefined balance is the shape of the future. Now is probably not the time, to be investing in new buildings.


5.  Imagine and create a meaningful experience of education

Leaders need to model the way. The recent history of national systems of education, features repeated attempts to “tack on” ideas about personal, social, health and emotional education and citizenship, to an experience of school that is already full of classes and timetables that reflect a different age, the rationale for which has rarely been revisited in any serious way – or in a way that has affected change. More radical ideas, which seek to put ideas of shared humanity at the centre of the experience of education, in preparation, no less, for an experience of life, have emerged and are emerging. The curriculum models of the United World Colleges ( for example, and the International Baccalaureate ( have values at the heart of their programmes, which inspires, informs and perfuses teaching and learning throughout the organisation (at least in theory) whilst the “curriculum for life” movement in the United Kingdom, along with outliers (or should we say “Outlaws”) such as Extinction Rebellion are brim full of creative collaborations which place Sustainability thinking at the centre of an education experience in the progressive ways.

I have never properly understood what has always appeared an artificial distinction between “curriculum and extra-curricular”. This division seems to me, to come from a distant age, which served a different purpose, one in which the relative value of each was made explicit. If you “misbehaved” in classroom, you were banned from sport – never the other way around. The implicit idea is that learning that happens in a classroom is more important than that which happens outside the classroom. Now, more than ever, is the time to challenge this outdated, redundant and dangerous way of thinking. Whatever the priorities of a society are, whatever we think and imagine them to be, then these priorities, funnily enough should be reflected in the experience of education we co-create for each other. You’ll notice I am using very specific language deliberately. I am replacing “Curriculum” with “experience”; “Co-create” instead of “deliver” (yuk!) or “provide”. The relationship between teachers and students is changing; through Covid-19 we can reasonably assert, it “has changed”. Teachers are becoming guides and facilitators and both teachers and students learn together. That is the shape of things to come.

So what should the shape of experience of education look like? At which point, we might return to our vision, and if think that schools exists for students and that education is about moral purpose, then it seems logical to keep students and values at the heart of what we do. And if we think that how we nurture a soul and develop a sense of society and a commitment to it, then this, too, should be a central feature of the experience. Central to the experience of education should be Service to local, regional and global communities. Students and teachers should be actively engaged with partners in a variety of sectors to understand how we all connected, with hitherto unknown souls with whose fate we can connect with a bond of sympathy. Service is not volunteerism. Service is a concept that should be reciprocal (what are we teaching and learning from each other?), meaningful (I am not doing this just to complete a requirement) and sustainable (I’m in this for the long-term, for all of our sakes). From Service emerges experiential learning and inquiry led projects which require subject based knowledge and subject specific teaching of content. And there you have it, current orthodoxy in how education generally happens around the world, challenged and literally, turned inside out. But there’s more.

It is time for the school year and the school day to be re-imagined, unless that is, we are going to return to the fields and recommit to working the harvest (actually not a bad idea). The absurdity of “summer holidays” exists because of an outdated observance to the harvest and the need to release young people to the labour force. How about an academic year of 40 weeks, split into 5 projects of 8 weeks each, all of which are theme based and inquiry driven, by a community of learners which might incorporate local, regional and global members, representative of the diversity and inequality of the world, as we seek to change the balance. Education ecosystems are now and forever, digital. We need to respond directly to this reality. Teaching and learning will become a combination of online and face-to-face engagement, with a focus as much on approaches to teaching and learning such as creativity, thinking and research skills, where innovation becomes a habit, to exploring national and international neighbourhoods where customs, culture, and history are an interactive theatre of life and technologies invent the future, examine the past, and make sense out of today.

Our broad themes can be grounded in the SDGs and create a common understanding of sustainability and generate appreciation for the interconnectivity of systems thinking and practice. Motivation needs to become intrinsic, rather than intrinsic, student led, teacher guided, with relative content organised to ensure young people emerge with both the knowledge and skills to thrive and to allow others to do the same. If teachers can be coached to aim for an “education epiphany” where they make ourselves redundant, because students have the skills, aspirations and knowledge to do learn, self-manage and self-regulate for themselves, the leaders might justifiably aim for the same.

“To lead people, walk beside them ...
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
The next best, the people honor and praise.
The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate ...
When the best leader's work is done the people say,
We did it ourselves!”

Lao Tzu

Andrew Watson has been a consultant Principal at the International School of Florence since 2019 and is Co-Director of Sustainability Education, and Chair of the Board of Governors of Albanian College. Contact him at or on LinkedIn at

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