Avoiding the Pitfalls of Sustainability as a Bolt-On

At Leading Your International School, we value: Ethical Leaders, Opportunity and Sustainability. We recently caught up with Brett Girven, Principal at Arbor School – Dubai, a unique Ecological School in Dubai based on the National Curriculum for England, to talk about all things sustainability and how our international schools of the future can shape a sustainable future, and beyond. Here we look at the need for sustainability and an abundant future to ‘avoid the pitfalls of sustainability merely serving as a bolt-on’, in many international curricula and their context. 

“I love good education” notes Brett, “one that doesn’t necessarily set out to be different for the purpose of being different. It sets out to change the paradigm, the mindset of our children, so that the way the students think when they leave us is different”. That is where we, at Arbor School are, in trying to move forward. We want our students to be different in placing sustainability at the forefront of international education”. At the Arbor School, students are focused on changes that take place in head, hand and heart.  It may surprise you however to learn that sustainability may not even be enough. 

Are You Happy With The Status Quo?

Sustainability is about maintaining our status quo. As a leader, are you happy with this future, one that may essentially mean we are not necessarily improving? Using positive education to change the hearts and minds of their students, the ambition at  Arbor School is to set their ambition far higher than sustainability. I learn that if we fall back from sustainable to unsustainable, then the security of our future becomes very unclear.  At Arbor School, they are starting to adopt the word ‘abundance’ says Brett, and where the safety net is sustainability. “If sustainability is neutral, the answer is not to set your overall school standards at neutral, it is to set it far higher….How do we build a world of human flourishing and ecological abundance”. Key to this abundant future is also social justice and a narrative that challenges the existing ‘wellbeing’ mindset.  

More Than Wellbeing

Wellbeing is often associated with the absence of illness, or the absence of stress. “Actually, what we want is for our staff to thrive and be excited about their lives and their jobs”. Doing good and feeling good for self, others and the environment. It begins to become clear that the aspirations that we hold of ourselves and the global communities our schools sit in, need to set their sights far higher that we currently do. “We need to re-redesign the way in which we think and engage with sustainability”. Here at the Arbor School, we have re-calibrated our initial thoughts on sustainability, so that we are always aiming higher than sustainability. With that in mind, we design (our curriculum and school programs) with an intent to achieve those loftier goals”. One solution to our international schools and the quest to become more aspirational when building our future is to promote diversity, both of the people we represent and the systems that support them. “We should be teaching our children what are the fundamental principles of our ecosystems and empowering our students to create sustainable human futures and beyond”, notes Brett.  

Context is Key

It is hard at times for our children to fully engage with the concept of sustainability. Much of our work has been based around the negative effect of the ways in which we live our lifestyles, the politics and individual actions that have and will continue to damage our futures. Here, Brett notes the importance of making sure that the thinking around sustainability and abundance is accessible to the context and age of our students that receive it. “Many of our students are too young to deal with the global challenges we currently face” and are not yet ready to define the added nuances that affect the growing movement of international individualism and the ‘one nation’ policies that can at times go in direct contrast to those we are going to need. “Any problems and the context, should be at the scale of the child”.

How To Set Your Sights on Becoming a Sustainable School (And Beyond)

  • Live it as much as you preach it. Model sustainable practices to your students, and in your overall operations. Assess these practices with as much importance as you do any others. 
  • Explore inclusive and diverse practices to strengthen your school, its practices and allow it to become resilient and adaptive.
  • Collaborate, connect and make mutually affirming decisions with partners.
  • Develop your school as a possible case-study of abundant sustainable good practices. Draw others and their curiosity in. 
  • Teach the right (positive context) first; rather that the negative and disaster-led scenario narratives we are often pushed. 
  • To avoid learned helplessness, deal with problems that we can actually solve and continue to pose them as thought-provoking questions at the appropriate level of your school. 

“There is no one clear path towards sustainability”, says Brett. “The further you get towards it, inevitably, the further away from achieving it we may become”. Working collaboratively together and setting our heights far higher than we currently are, may be one possible way our students can positively shape an abundant future for all. We are responsible then, to remind ourselves, that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of sustainability and abundant practices. There are however, certainly unsustainable practices that we all need to challenge and question our ethical leadership behind them. 

Key Question To Ask Yourself As Your Schools Leader

  • Is your existing paradigm and framework for learning and teaching going to produce the kind of children with ‘eco-competencies’ of the future we are going to need”?  
  • Is your international school framework one that acknowledges true collaboration or based on individual competitiveness? 
  • Are you prepared to de-prioritise some of the so-called ‘soft-skills’ and prioritise those that are needed to develop sustainability and beyond? 

To connect with Brett Girven on LinkedIn: 


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