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The Green Action ELT Forum 2023

Should we focus on small steps or structural change? Will leadership come from above or below? While awareness grows, is action lagging? A conversation full of contradictions may actually point to the route forward for our sector.

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.”

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