Events Opinion

The Green Action ELT Forum 2023

This year we held the second Green Action ELT Forum. Directors, teachers, managers and students joined us from language schools, universities and awarding bodies. Most based in the UK, but many tuned in from around the world too.

Discussing broad questions about environmental action in the language teaching sector felt like a conversation full of opposites. We noted both the power and limitations of small, cumulative steps; discussed the importance of leadership ‘from above’, but also the need for pressure ‘from below’ to demand that action; and recognised growing awareness and acceptance of the climate crisis, but many also saw a lack of action across the sector.

Yet, what seems like contradiction and conflict may actually reflect the route forward for our sector and beyond.

Environmental interest has grown, but is it still growing?

There was agreement among forum delegates that interest in environmental action has grown. Environmental concern is no longer a fringe topic, there is greater acceptance that we are in a climate crisis and wider recognition that it is a problem we need to address.

More schools have green policies, more industry events include environmental content, and there are more lessons plans for a growing number of teachers who want to engage their students with the biggest challenge of our time. Interest has increased in all walks of life, and the language teaching sector is no different.

Yet, while interest has grown, is it still growing?

The good news was diluted by the feeling that action has plateaued, stopped or even slipped backwards. Together we reflected on the spike of interest during the pandemic when, without students, many of us had extra time and space to think about longer term issues like the climate and environmental crisis.

But now that borders have reopened and students are returning to our classrooms and summer camps, attention has turned back to day to day business. Instead of creating a ‘new normal’ where environmental responsibility is considered alongside sales, we’ve returned to a solely short-term and narrow idea of success.

And it’s not just schools. Delegates noted that Eaquals trialled a Green Stars scheme that seems to have ended, English UK published an ambitious environmental plan but no action has been taken and, in the past 12 months, it looks like only one article has covered environmental action in StudyTravel Magazine.

It seems for many, environmental interest was short lived. And now a lack of free time or ‘slack resources’ is working against environmental action in ELT.

Sprigs of hope and pockets of action

If the momentum has been lost, how do we find it again? First, we can recognise and celebrate what is happening.

Delegates at the forum reported all sorts of changes at their language schools and organisations. From installing sensor lights and cutting single use plastics, to writing environmental policies and supporting local environmental projects. The group had big plans too, like converting parking spaces into outdoor student seating or becoming the greenest provider in their area.

Even one of our biggest environmental challenges, reliance on aviation, may be showing the first signs of change. Several schools reported more European students choosing to travel by train, including a group travelling from Switzerland to Norwich and young siblings travelling by Eurostar to London, where they’ll be met by ECS staff.

These are promising steps and the group agreed that we need to take heart and keep chipping away at the problem bit by bit.

Personal to professional to systemic change

However, although forum delegates agreed that encouraging small steps is important, many also found this approach frustratingly little.

Most of us in the room had taken the step from individual to organisational action, expanding the reach of our commitment from personal habits to working practice at our schools and organisations.

But the scale and urgency of this crisis means we need more widespread and impactful change across our whole sector. We not only need dedicated directors and teachers, but also publishers reviewing their content through a green lens; associations putting environmental responsibility on the agenda for their members; and sustainability included in inspections.

It seems then, that the way forward is clear but reaching it remains a challenge. Several delegates suggested that the British Council is unlikely to change their inspection criteria without pressure from its members. Happily, the Council is conducting a member-wide consultation on the Accreditation UK scheme this year. An opportunity we’ve seized by encouraging members to include a call for environmental criteria.

Introducing the first criteria relating to environmental responsibility would be a great step towards systemic change in the sector. At the forum, delegates recounted how lobbying led to new safeguarding laws. These in turn shaped inspection criteria and normalised safeguarding requirements in every school just 20 years ago. Sustainability could follow a similar route.

The impact of change of this kind would be invaluable. And the first ever inclusion of environment in Accreditation UK would be a great achievement. But even if our campaign for greener inspection criteria is successful, it’s likely that any environmental requirements would be limited (in order to be applicable to all schools and within the expertise of inspectors).

So we still need to push for more; collectively shifting the culture of our sector and communities. At Green Action ELT we are working on a structured set of commitments to help guide action. And for language schools looking for environmental accreditation, there’s Green Standard Schools.

Everything, everywhere, all at once

It may seem like our discussion was full of conflicts and contradictions, but the 2023 Green Action ELT forum reflected something crucial: that we need change in all areas at once.

We are in a defining moment. Our action this decade will shape our world. And, with risk escalating wildly with every fraction of warming, change has never been more urgent. But there is no one person, organisation or measure that can drive the change we need to see. We need it all.

We need to do everything we can and we need to be ambitious.

What’s more, we need to talk about it. The group discussed the importance of sharing our actions and how it can help normalise environmental considerations and inspire others. While some delegates added that more talk doesn’t mean more action, others felt that awareness always leads to action.

Whether you have the reach of an international chain or association, a small family business or classroom, you have the opportunity to make and advocate for change across our sector.

As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently said: “Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.”

Campaigning and lobbying

Join our campaign for greener inspection criteria

Every four years, the British Council refreshes their inspection criteria for English language teaching centres in the UK. This year, for the first time, they are inviting input from all accredited members. Let’s push for the first ever inclusion of environmental action and responsibility in the Accreditation UK scheme.

We are suggesting two new management criteria:

• Accredited language centres have an environmental policy;
• Any marketing claims made to environmental commitments should be accurate and supported by evidence.

If you agree and you are participating in the survey, use our suggested text below in your submission.

The first requirement will help embed environmental responsibility across our sector, while acknowledging that different centres are at different stages in their response. Putting an environmental policy in place will give all types of language centre the chance to consider what steps they can reasonably take to reduce their negative impact.

The second offers important protection against greenwashing – falsely marketing a language school as ‘greener’ than it is. As customers are increasingly prioritising sustainable businesses, we must ensure our sector communicates honestly about environmental action in marketing and publicity.

These new criteria will help give our sector’s environmental impact the status it needs.

Together they not only acknowledge the environmental crisis but also set the foundation for action, helping to prepare our sector for change, potential new regulation as the government moves to meet climate change commitments, as well as protecting students against false advertising.

If your school is recognised by Accredited UK, we encourage you to include a call for these two new environmental criteria when you complete the survey. We have included suggested text and sections for submission below.

This is the perfect opportunity to push for real change in our sector. So please share this call to action across your networks! #GreenELT

Suggested text

Strategic and quality management M1-M7 section:

Our organisation believes that the scheme should require accredited language centres to have an environmental policy in order to embed environmental responsibility across our sector.

Publicity M22-M29 section:

Our organisation believes that the scheme should require that any marketing claims made by accredited language centres with regards to environment commitments are accurate and supported by evidence to prevent greenwashing.


Join us for practical tips and discussion on Earth Day

We are pleased to present two sessions at the environment-focused English UK ELT Conference on Thursday 22 April – join us on the free teachers’ day for practical tips, discussion, Q&As and to support our green ELT movement.

> Register for the free ELT Conference teachers’ day (via English UK)

In the morning, join ELTSustainable’s Owain Llewellyn and colleagues, who will share practical tips on including sustainability in everyday teaching. In the afternoon we’ll take a wider look at why and how we can create a greener ELT sector with ELT Footprint UK founder Chris Etchells. View our events page for more details.

Everyone is welcome! So please invite your colleagues and join the conversation on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

We look forward to you joining us again soon!

Big picture

The time is now: why UK ELT needs a green transformation

The idea of prioritising climate action may feel like one task too many right now. But the climate crisis isn’t a remote event but a reality we are already seeing in extreme storms, fires, floods, displacement and loss around the world. The time is now. And English language teaching must act and help address climate change.

What’s more, the current upheaval gives us an opportunity to shape what comes next. We don’t want to ‘go back to normal’ if it led us into environmental destruction, a pandemic and climate crisis.

Instead we can seize this moment of change to build new ways of working and living that are sustainable, fairer and safer for everyone.

2020 – a historic moment and an opportunity

Covid-19 has badly hurt UK ELT, taken far too many lives and many fear for their jobs and homes. But it has also shown us we that we can dramatically change how we work, relax and travel to save lives and protect our communities. It may have even given us a glimpse of the way forward.

We have seen the inequalities and suffering we want to avoid; realised the essential services, from shop workers to bus drivers to nurses, that we must strengthen and support; we have glimpsed roads turned in to safe spaces for exercise and play; been delighted by the wildlife wandering back into our quieter world (the Llandudno goats were a favourite!); and covid has reminded us of our vulnerability to natural disasters.

Those who have been lucky enough to be able to enjoy time off through furlough or mothballed businesses, had the opportunity to reflect on life’s direction and priorities. To imagine a better future with more free time, less travel, more flexible working and slower living.

Now we have a better idea of what we have to lose and to gain. And we have seen the change we are capable of. So let’s take action to create a better world and help our industry come out of the Covid-19 crisis on the right side of history. The time is now.

Plus – many of the actions necessary to limit climate change will also help prevent the emergence and spread of diseases and novel viruses.

The problems we face are interconnected

Hundreds of thousands live in poverty, food bank use has increased by 74% in five years (and that’s before coronavirus), hate crimes have doubled, the NHS is struggling and the country is politically divided. Shouldn’t we address these problems first?

We absolutely must address these issues. And we must tackle them together with climate action.

When we talk about the effects of climate change, we are talking about disasters that hurt and endanger people. We want to protect each other from suffering, save people’s homes and livelihoods. And these goals cannot ignore inequalities and injustice. Especially when climate change disproportionately affects poor people, marginalised people and people of colour.

We need to look for multi-issue solutions and holistic system change to create a better, greener world for everyone.

We face many challenge and the time to address them is now. Take a look at our tips and green guides to help you begin (or continue!) improving your environmental impact. And please share your environmental activities, ideas and challenges with us on Twitter and Linked In – we must speak up and prioritise #GreenELT.

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