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Education for sustainability

Education for sustainability

Sustainability is a critical issue for New Zealand – environmentally, economically, culturally, politically, and socially. We need to learn how to live smarter to reduce our impact on the environment for future generations.

EfS in schools

Education for sustainability fosters innovative approaches to curriculum design and review, and provides many opportunities for students to become confident, connected, actively involved, life-long learners.

Schools choosing to include a sustainability focus can do so in a number of ways. For example:

  • through developing a whole school approach – where students engaging in practices, projects, and ways of working that lead to a more sustainable future forms the basis of the curriculum and teaching and learning programmes
  • by using the NCEA Achievement Standards in Education for Sustainability to engage students in worthwhile qualifications
  • by including the multitude of meaningful learning contexts, issues, and community projects that sustainability provides across learning areas and levels of the curriculum.

What is a sustainable school

People, place, programmes, practices

A framework for understanding and developing a whole school approach to sustainability has been produced by a New Zealand research team including teachers through a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative project. This framework shows the areas of school life to consider when developing a whole school approach to sustainability. 

Four areas of school life work together to create a sustainable school.

In a sustainable school:

  • People work collaboratively, are reflective of our bicultural heritage and the diversity of their community. They ensure that students are all involved in sharing decisions in order to become confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.
  • Programmes focus on learning about the interaction between people and the environment and developing attitudes and behaviours for a more sustainable future. Through taking action students discover why sustainability matters and how to make sustainability a reality in their school and wider community.
  • Sustainable Practices are part of school culture instigated by students and staff to make a more resilient community for the future.
  • Place is created where students and their community work together willingly to reduce their impact on the planet for future generations to enjoy the diverse and beautiful world we live in.

Primary schools

Why focus on education for sustainability?

A focus on education for sustainability:

  • can develop learners who are informed decision makers, and connected to the land and the environment
  • provides a context that enables meaningful connections between learning areas, key competencies, and values
  • offers ways for students and schools to contribute to the social, cultural, economic, and environmental well-being of New Zealand. A sustainable school prepares young people for a lifetime of sustainable living, through its teaching, its culture, and its day-to-day practices
  • provides opportunities for students to engage in genuine learning in their communities and take action
  • uses authentic learning to develop creative and critical thinking for a sustainable future.

School Stories

Fairhaven primary school
A story of creating a supportive learning environment and facilitating shared learning through Education for Sustainability.

Laingholm primary school

Langholm School has a school based curriculum that engages student in authentic learning based on an ongoing vision for sustainability in the school

Secondary schools

Why focus on education for sustainability?

Education for sustainability:

  • is meaningful to young people and encourages collaborative planning to take relevant action
  • supports secondary schools to address some of the challenges in implementing the national curriculum - it provides a context that enables meaningful connections between learning areas for teachers and students
  • develops action competent students who are aware of the possibilities of a sustainable future - student action competency incorporates key competencies and values in teaching and learning
  • uses achievement standards that contribute NCEA credits
  • provides a learning pathway to link innovative students to careers in sustainability and green technologies

uses authentic situations to develop creative and critical thinking for a sustainable future.

Senior secondary

At levels 6-8 of the national curriculum, schools can develop new and innovative courses with a focus on sustainability that encourage learning in a range of disciplines. A focus on education for sustainability can also be incorporated within traditional learning areas.

Education for Sustainability Teaching and Learning Guidelines are now available to guide teachers in developing teaching and learning programmes for senior secondary students. Education for sustainability has its foundations in environmental education, and the Environmental Education Guidelines (1999) will continue to provide useful information and support for planning.

Qualifications in education for sustainability are available on the National Qualifications Framework at NCEA Levels 2 and 3. These qualifications will contribute to students' learning and career pathways in creating a sustainable future.


The New Zealand Curriculum states that the primary purpose of assessment is to improve students’ learning and teachers’ teaching as both student and teacher respond to the information that it provides (page 39). Effective assessment benefits students, involves students, supports teaching and learning, is varied to suit the context and purpose, and is valid and fair.

Te Marautanga o Aotearoa expresses similar views in the section Ngā Ahuatanga Ako, under the heading Te Whakarite Aromatawai Whai Take (page 15).

The Ministry of Education has developed a series of Achievement Standards for education for sustainability at levels 2 and 3 on the National Qualifications Framework that are aligned with The New Zealand Curriculum. They may be used within dedicated year-long sustainability courses or be incorporated into other senior subjects such as geography, the sciences, economics, and horticulture as well as within learning areas such as technology and the arts.

Links to key resources and information for assessment in education for sustainability are provided here:

Education for sustainability Achievement Standards

Six level 2 and five level 3 standards are available on the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) website. The standards have been registered under the domain Environmental Sustainability and teachers should use this name when undertaking a search.

Credits gained at level 3 will contribute to University Entrance as part of the 42 credits required. Environmental Sustainability credits can contribute to the 14 credits which can come from 1 or 2 domains on the National Qualifications Framework that do NOT have to be from the approved subject list.

NCEA Internal Assessment Resources

These assessment resources have been developed by the Ministry of Education for use with the internally assessed achievement standards. The resources are available in both Word and PDF format.

Further information on assessing with unit standards can be found on the NZQA website. Some assessment resources are also available.

Pathways in EfS

Education for sustainability achievement standards provide relevant qualifications to contribute to students learning and career pathways in creating a sustainable future.

The achievement standards are integrated assessments, which can be used in a variety of ways depending on student needs. The standards could be incorporated within traditional learning areas, or offer assessment opportunities for new and innovative courses with a focus on sustainability, which encourages learning in a range of disciplines.

NCEA qualifications in education for sustainability provide:

  • coherence in linking learning for transition from primary to secondary school and further learning
  • assessment opportunities to give credits for University Entrance
  • focused knowledge and competencies that will contribute to careers needed for a “sustainable economy”
  • opportunities to develop meaningful integrated pathways in secondary schools implementing the NZC
  • recognition for active young people interested in creating a sustainable future.
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Updated on: 02 Jul 2020