A comparative case study analysis of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) policy enactment: Intersections of school leadership and material contexts

Year: 2019

Author: Aikens, Kathleen

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Research Challenge:In 2005, the International Implementation Scheme for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) declared the need to re-orient public education toward sustainable development, including social and environmental justice. While the decade of ESD has spurred policy development across a number of national and subnational jurisdictions, its effect on practices in primary and secondary schools is less clear. This paper examines ESD policy enactmentthrough comparative case study analysis of four schools in Canada, and in relation to school division, ministry, and international policy. This research takes a relational approach to analysis, focusing on how leadership practices within schools, together with material contexts such as classrooms and other school facilities, influence ESD policy enactment. Study findings are contextualised within the international ESD policy literature, with implications for schools in Australia.

Methods:This research was completed as part of a pan-Canadian project, conducted by the Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN). The analysis in this paper draws on a subset of data including policy documents, interviews, focus groups, photo documentation and other field observations, and participant ratings of whole school engagement with sustainability. A combined 214 participants took part in this research; this included representatives from the provincial Department of Education and Training and two local school divisions; school staff and administrators, students, and community members.

Findings:Of the four case schools, two appeared to have exceeded ESD policy mandates, while the remaining two appeared to struggle. The two exceeding schools provided evidence of the effectiveness of distributed leadership, as well as the relationship between school leadership and the material contexts of classrooms, offices, and school grounds. Rather than reliance on a single, charismatic leader, successful school-based ESD practices emerged through enabling relationshipsbetween staff, students, and local school environments. Material infrastructure, including classrooms, school grounds, composting and greenhouse facilities, supported the maintenance of everyday sustainable practices involved in school-based ESD policy enactment. Across all four schools, we observed complex relationships in the enactment of environmental, social, and economic components of ESD. Participants struggled to articulate examples of school-based practices that addressed the intersections of ESD, social justice, and Indigenous knowledges.

This analysis calls for further research attending to the rhythms of everyday practices in “highly successful” ESD schools, across internationally comparative contexts, to better understand how ESD practices are initiated and maintained.