Education for sustainability through secondary school knowledge networks: Policy dilemmas

Year: 2008

Author: Steele, Frances, Singh, Michael

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Education for Sustainability (EfS) policy advocates links between schools and local organisations with expertise in environmental issues. In NSW the Sustainable Schools Program and the Department of Education and Training also promote such links. A discourse of partnership between schools and community organisations is also found in policy texts in the areas of Vocational Education and Training (VET) and school-family connections. The research literature establishes a basis for partnership in certain contexts (Epstein, 1995; Fullan, 2003) and case studies indicate that secondary school links can be effective (Sanders, 2003). However, the proliferation of calls for partnership in separate policy areas may be problematic as students and staff are pressured to spend more time in learning contexts outside the school.

The demand to build partnership can be conceptualised as a requirement for increased intellectual capital within the school. Intellectual capital is related to social capital (Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998), which is regarded as the value accruing from the social connections. The aim of policy is thus seen as increasing intellectual capital gains for schools through interorganisational links. This paper investigates the relationship between policy, development of organisational links and intellectual capital in one region. The study examines inter-organisational links for secondary schools in a local government area in urban NSW. Network analysis based on a qualitative paradigm (Monge & Contractor, 2003) is used to design, interpret and present the research. Interviews, document analysis, and observation were used to gather data about the nature of links. Egonets describing the nature of links made by schools were then constructed. Snowball sampling of school-nominated knowledge sources was used to identify networks involving transfer of knowledge. An analysis of policy texts provided insight into the discourses that give rise to particular network configurations.

An EfS knowledge network that potentially offered intellectual capital to schools was identified. However, this network is only one of three such knowledge flows. The relatively new EfS network has to compete with more established school links in the area of VET. VET networks are more closely allied to the curriculum, through mandated wok placements and associated local community partnerships. School staff members interviewed reported a lack of time for making social connections and were resistant to new links. The reality of school belies increasing social capital through creating yet more connections. Forms of social capital that involve creating strategic links to non redundant sources of knowledge may offer more potential. Currently organisations such as NSW DET and local council maintain separate departments acting as brokers within distinct knowledge flows. One way of increasing the gains to schools may be to interlink networks that currently operate in different knowledge areas. This might reduce school time devoted to forming social relationships while maximising the applicability of the knowledge exchanged.

A network perspective offers a view of the totality of school and community factors that make up the landscape in which individual EfS providers operate. This paper argues that such a perspective is advantageous to those who wish to become part of this landscape. Currently providers within different knowledge networks appear unaware of each others goals and activities. It is proposed that dialogue across networks could enable schools and organisational partners to more effectively negotiate these time intensive relationships. As (Goldney, Murphy, Fien, & Kent, 2007) suggest, perhaps it is time to find some common ground between VET and EfS that would enable local providers to dovetail the programs that are increasingly on offer for schools.