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An Australian story: school sustainability education in the lucky country.


For many Australians "the lucky country" has become a celebrated phrase used to describe Australia's bountiful natural resources, weather, lifestyle, history, and distance from problems elsewhere in the world. This phrase, though originally intended to be an indictment of Australia (Horne, 1964), has become an affirmation of the Australian way of life and produced a "she'll be right" mentality (AG, 2011). For environmental educators in Western Australia this relaxed mentality combined with economic reliance on the mining and resources industry is an obstacle to discussing the implications of climate change and encouraging uptake of environmentally responsible behaviours. Another obstacle to environmental education in Australia, especially apparent among children in affluent counties, is the phenomena of "action paralysis" where people feel disempowered about making lasting change because of continuous negative reports of environmental problems without sufficient action-oriented information (Ballantyne, Connell, & Fien, 2006; Jensen & Schnack, 2006). Studies suggest action paralysis needs to be replaced by action competence based on feelings of shared responsibility. These two factors combined create unique challenges for environmental education in Australia.

This paper presents a case study framed within whole-school, whole-system approaches to environmental education for sustainability, supported by the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative in Western Australia (AuSSI--WA) and the Millennium Kids approach to sustainability facilitation. The school featured in this case study is a prestigious private school located in an affluent suburb of Perth. This suburb and those surrounding it are among the greatest polluters, biggest water users and have the highest eco-footprints, per person per year, in the state of Western Australia (ACF, 2010). The school's principal and staff were aware that many of the children's parents work in the mining and resources industry and may be more financially driven than environmentally driven. They also were aware, however, that many of these children are from families of influence and some children may be in a position to lead systemic change when they grow up. In 2008 the school set out to implement sustainability education using principles of action competence and shared responsibility. To do this, the school adopted a whole-school, whole-system approach and formed partnerships with AuSSI-WA and Millennium Kids. The Australian-ness of this environmental education story is framed between the school's focus on sustainability education and shared responsibility among the whole school community, and the lucky country mentality and reliance on natural resources by most of the families whose children attend the school.

In this research we explored the question: what organisational outcomes and challenges might this newly enrolled AuSSI--WA school encounter when they utilise the Millennium Kids approach to sustainability facilitation? We present results about three key elements of sustainability education (DoE, 2010b): community links and partnerships, school governance and policy, and curriculum integration. We also discuss the strengths and challenges of the school's new direction as reported by the staff. Because of their importance to this case study, in the next section we introduce two organisations, AuSSI-WA and Millennium Kids.


The Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative is a federal and state partnership, that promotes a whole-school, whole-system approach to sustainability (DSEWPC, 2011; Lewis, Baudains, & Mansfield, 2009). In Western Australia, AuSSI advocates a holistic, integrated vision of education for sustainability, by placing equal emphasis on environmental, socio-cultural, and economic perspectives and facilitating explicit links across the curriculum (DoE, 2010a; Lewis et al., 2009). It encourages schools to tailor a sustainability journey appropriate to their school community, while still drawing on AuSSI--WA for access to networks, tools and resources. Similar to other states, AuSSI--WA provides schools with professional development, access to an alliance of key educational providers and case studies of school experiences to foster resource sharing (Davis & Ferreira, 2009; Gough, 2005; Ilich, 2008). In addition, AuSSI--WA provides a detailed rubric self-assessment tool, a basic step-by-step guide to help schools get started and visual tools termed the "ecological footprint" and "social handprint" that emphasise the environmental, socio-cultural, and economic perspectives of sustainability (DoE, 2010a, 2010b; Ilich, 2008). Currently more than three hundred and fifty schools across Western Australia are registered as participating AuSSI-WA schools.

Millennium Kids

Millennium Kids Inc. is a Perth-based non-profit, non-government environmental organisation for young people aged 10-25 years old. Over the past 15 years Millennium Kids have developed strong relationships with schools and a wide variety of organisations. Millennium Kids currently provide services as a sustainability facilitator for almost 40 schools in Western Australia (Taylor, 2010). Millennium Kids act as a conduit for a school by "advertising] the diversity of groups and people out there who care about the environment and with which young people could participate" (Taylor, 2010, p. 79). Based on the school's priorities Millennium Kids "call in the people with expertise in other areas, rather than overlapping or competing" (Taylor, 2010, p. 79). Millennium Kids promote AuSSI-WA to all the schools they work with because "the AuSSI framework has supported the way Millennium Kids works ... [and] gives us credibility in a federal framework" (C. Aniere, personal communication, August 4, 2010). Because of their diverse community networks, including AuSSI-WA, and experience working with young people, Millennium Kids is well placed to act as a school sustainability facilitator.


The data presented in this case study are a subset of a larger research program and focus on organisational aspects of the school's sustainability program. The data for this case study were drawn from document searches and interviews with one teacher from each of Year 4, 5 and 6, the main staff sustainability coordinator, the deputy principal, principal and CEO of Millennium Kids. To enhance validity a range of opinions was purposefully sampled (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Purposeful sampling of interviewees provided triangulation across levels of organisation within the school's sustainability program with a focus on the upper-primary years. The findings of the case study are limited by the opinions and experiences of the participant sample. Interview and document data were analysed using deductive content analysis where coding of categories was guided by previous research findings (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002).

All interviews were semi-structured, conducted individually, voice recorded and transcribed. Interviews ranged from 30 to 60 minutes. Interviews with the teachers and deputy principal included questions about their opinions of climate change, how they incorporate sustainability into class lessons, and the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats involved in the school's collaboration with Millennium Kids and AuSSI--WA. Interview questions for the principal were similar, with additional questions about the history of sustainability education at the school, and milestones. Interviews with the CEO of Millennium Kids included questions regarding the history and nature of their collaboration with this school, their approach to sustainability facilitation, and their relationship with AuSSI--WA.

Documents that were analysed included school newsletters and newspaper clippings related to the school's sustainability initiatives and reports from the school's self-documented timeline of sustainability activities located on the Millennium Kids social networking website (Millennium Kids, 2010).

Results and Discussion

The results address three key elements that influence the organisation of sustainability in school life (DoE, 2010b).

Community Links and Partnerships

Providing support is seen as critical to the effectiveness of whole-school sustainability initiatives (Henderson & Tilbury, 2004; Ilich, 2008). Facilitators and external support staff contribute to this effectiveness. In early 2008, the case study school signed up to AuSSI--WA and in June 2008 the school's principal, in consultation with the teaching staff, contracted Millennium Kids to facilitate their sustainability initiatives. The CEO of Millennium Kids described their collaboration as a "partnership" and stated, "A partnership is more than Millennium Kids giving to the schools. It's about sharing knowledge and ideas." The case study school's partnership with Millennium Kids was founded upon a pre-existing interest among the school's staff towards adopting a whole-school sustainability focus (Figure 1). From June 2008 onwards, the number and diversity of sustainability initiatives undertaken by the school grew rapidly (Figure 2).

Millennium Kids worked closely with the principal and the main school sustainability coordinator to provide step-by-step support to the school. They delivered professional development tailored to the staff's sustainability interests, used the Millennium Kids' Ten Step Methodology with students, and helped the school foster relationships with parents, other sustainable schools, organisations and educational providers. Of their approach to sustainability facilitation, the CEO of Millennium Kids explained, "it's about capacity building. It's not about taking a package in. It's actually about sitting around collaborating and creating". The principal described their collaboration as dynamic, saying "they keep stimulating us, keep us moving along, stop us from becoming complacent". When asked whether and in what ways the partnership helped the school develop its sustainability focus and policies, the deputy principal said, "definitely [by providing] guidelines, expertise, passion, they've got the passion." Teacher D remarked:
 I think it focuses us, I think it helps us to find useful
 activities that you can do in school. Other schools have done them
 so you can have a look and follow through. That's a real strength.

Sustainable schools are encouraged to build partnerships and networks with community organisations to enhance their local relevance and increase multistakeholder involvement (Tilbury, Coleman, & Garlick, 2005). In less than two years, the school built relationships with various agencies to tailor activities relevant to the school's focus and the students' interests. Millennium Kids facilitated connections with groups such as Ribbons of Blue, Travel Smart, Slow Food International, Millennium Kids--South Africa, Aboriginal groups, other schools, the local town council, local bushland friends group and a local supermarket (Figure 2). Of this the principal said, "There are lots more ventures that are happening, like us connected with The Centre for Water Research [at The University of Western Australia]".

Millennium Kids also encouraged the school to weave sustainability messages into some of the existing whole-school traditions and priorities, such as Harmony Day and Friends of the Library (Figure 2). These included attempts to "involve parents in initiatives that we are doing" (Teacher C). The principal explained, "We're trying to build in some of our current traditions and then just double up on it", for example:
 We have Grandparents Day every year. But what we did this time was
 we actually got the grandparents and children to compare the carbon
 footprint when they went to school versus the children.

Despite best efforts the school encountered some challenges related to its status as a prestigious private, primary school and a lucky country mentality. Staff said they "tread carefully" when approaching the sustainability message "because there's potential for it to backfire" (Teacher D). Teacher B said, "You don't want to annoy anyone too much because a lot of the parents at this school work in the oil and gas industry". The principal acknowledged:
 We're fighting an upward battle of very wealthy and endowed
 families who perhaps are financially driven more than necessarily
 environmentally driven.... There's an unwritten, unspoken sort of
 expectation that everything is just perfect. I think there is a
 slight expectation that we should be providing the service before
 looking after the environment. You know, I paid good money so why
 can't I have my newsletter in paper?


Schools involved in sustainability initiatives have reported greater involvement in the life of the school by parents and the community as a whole (Henderson & Tilbury, 2004). For many schools this involvement was garnered through collective efforts of greening the school and meaningful participation on school governing bodies. Data from interviews with parents will be reported in a future paper, but preliminary analysis suggest this school could go further to involving parents in meeting school sustainability priorities.

School Governance and Policy

The way school governance and policies are managed can create tension in the set up of whole-school sustainability initiatives (Wooltorton, 2004). In describing the steps leading up to their partnership with Millennium Kids, the principal explained, "We got more staff on board who were really keen and passionate, then I drove the priorities". She was aware that teachers integrated sustainability to "different extents" and shared her vision that "as the students go from teacher to teacher they'll pick up inspiration for different things". The principal's motivation for driving sustainability priorities at the school was that the students "are more than likely going to be decision makers for big companies or part of a private enterprise" and "these people can influence because some of these kids may go into politics and could make systemic change".

The principal's leadership style could be described as "managerial", where influence is exercised through positions of authority (O'Donoghue & Clarke, 2010). The principal stated that "leadership is essential", and "there's a certain culture here where principal and head of junior school are key decision makers". The principal's enthusiasm and direction were clear when she stated:
 I'm in the position to try and influence things [by introducing
 initiatives such as] fair trade coffee [in the staff room], reduce
 the amount of [plastic] wrap that's used to wrap up dishes, .
 Encouraging walk to school with the community. And institutionally
 talking about how often you should be using your heating and air
 conditioning. It sounds a bit dictatorial, but there are
 whole-school things that you can actually do, like the whole-school

All teachers interviewed acknowledged that leadership of their principal was integral to the school's sustainability focus, and that losing her could be a threat to the process. They also voiced the importance of being flexible with time, resources and expectations, and not over-directing the process but providing support and collaboration. Teacher A explained that the challenge for the school's governance was being able to "keep staff motivated but at the same time not giving them additional work" because "when you start loading up the curriculum with initiatives that the school takes on you have to be very aware that you can lose staff". Teacher B expressed her frustration:
 As a teacher it can get boring because you just keep doing it again
 and again and again, and you want to be able to have a bit of fun
 with it. It's got to loosen up a bit. The problem we've got is
 there's so much that we need to teach, and that we're expected to

Commitment and support from a school's governing body is required for a wholeschool sustainability program to be successful, without which it "will lose momentum and fail to become embedded in the school culture" (Henderson & Tilbury, 2004, p. 35). Because of their administrative authority the principal plays an important role in how a school's governing body is managed (Wooltorton, 2004). All collaborators on the governing body, including administrators, teachers, parents and students, need to share responsibility and assume ownership for sustainability initiatives if they are to be successful and lasting. To achieve this shared responsibility, leadership should be distributed and all collaborators engaged in participative, democratic decision-making (Henderson & Tilbury, 2004; O'Donoghue & Clarke, 2010; Wooltorton, 2004). Data from this case study suggest that more can be done at this school for all collaborators to feel more engaged in the decision making process.

Curriculum Integration

In Western Australia, AuSSI advocates a holistic, integrated vision of education for sustainability, by placing even emphasis on environmental, economic and sociocultural perspectives and facilitating explicit links across the curriculum (DoE, 2010a; Lewis, et al., 2009). Curriculum integration at this school was influenced by engaging the student voice. Millennium Kids fostered student engagement through use of their Ten Steps Methodology. This tool was used in student conferences (Figure 2), where students were given opportunities to voice their concerns and opinions about their environment and society. "The concerns realised were centered around the issues of air, water, trees, waste, native animals, energy, peace/lifestyle and leadership" ("Timeline", 2010, para. 1), and became the platform from which the school set its focus. The deputy principal spoke about the process, "They [Millennium Kids] treat them [the students] like adults. They give them adult type activities, for instance creating an audit of what they see as important". Data from interviews and surveys with students will be reported in a future paper, but preliminary analyses suggest students valued this collaborative process.

Staff were asked to participate in the student conferences to observe the Millennium Kids Methodology and were encouraged to develop their yearly planning around one or more of the students' main concerns. The principal said, "There's things you can do personally, things you could do curriculum-wise and things we can do as an institution." She explained that each teacher has an area of sustainability they are personally interested in, such as transport, waste, or water, so she tells teachers they should "follow their passion" when incorporating sustainability into lesson planning "because then you'll do it properly". The principal described how action competence could be developed among students, "instead of thinking just classroom and the wider world, by looking locally they could actually act, the kids could be empowered". And, as a result, "each year level has run with something they can manage and are aware of themselves". Teacher C commented, "There's a lot of teachers who are willing to get their teeth sunk into it" and teacher D explained:
 The year 4s come around and empty the recycling bins every week. .
 The year 5s are focusing on the river so that's their thing, the
 year 1s have got the worm farm and other year levels have got other
 things. There's a lot of things happening. [Figure 2]

Issues arise for teachers when planning and teaching sustainability such as: making links to the curriculum, using whole systems thinking, depth of personal understanding, and teacher time (Summers, Corney, & Childs, 2003; Tilbury et al., 2005). In this case study, several teachers said it was possible to weave sustainability messages across learning areas. Teacher A explained, "As long as the kids are excited and engaged and the teachers are keen and interested the course sort of evolves." However, teachers also discussed the challenge of managing time, and not over-doing the message. The deputy principal explained:
 Timetable is a big problem ... You have to teach smart and
 incorporate it in a lot of different learning areas but without
 overkill, which we could be in danger of doing with one or two

Interviews revealed that, in practice, teachers weave sustainability into their lessons to different degrees. Teacher B described her approach in this way, "I tend not to incorporate the learning into the other areas, but I do incorporate the action . as an incidental learning kind of thing". Whereas teacher A stated:
 Once you start going down that track things open up for you, ... so
 long as you're addressing outcomes that we have to cover. And
 sustainability, in terms of the social sciences it's in all the
 areas, and in terms of English being a tool for the social
 sciences, maths, everything ... Sustainability just falls into
 place naturally.

Whole systems thinking, is an encouraged approach to teaching sustainability because it focuses on a holistic understanding of the interconnections and interdependence between all things and helps foster action competence (Tilbury et al., 2005), rather than teaching separate projects which the students may not connect to the bigger picture (Lewis & Baudains, 2007). A whole systems approach requires teachers to weave sustainability messages across curriculum learning areas, which can be a challenge for some teachers, as observed in this case study. Schools require sufficient resource materials, professional development and teacher time to adopt this integrated approach (Tilbury et al., 2005).


Establishing environmental education as a school priority often creates tensions between outcomes and challenges that arise along the journey (Henderson & Tilbury, 2004; Tilbury et al., 2005). In this Australian story, Millennium Kids' approach to sustainability facilitation helped the school establish patterns of whole-school, whole-system sustainability education in less than two years by fostering certain organisational elements. These elements were characterised by several tensions: tension between the school's sustainability focus and a lucky country mentality observed among the parent body, tension between the principal's determination to drive initiatives and the staff's involvement in decision-making, and tension between the expectation on teachers to integrate sustainability messages across curriculum learning areas and the time, effort and training required to do so. These tensions did not prevent the establishment of sustainability education at this school, but they may encumber the longevity, integration and support for these initiatives in future years if not addressed.

Every environmental education story is different yet there are often common features that can be learned from and transferred to other schools or contexts (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Schools can benefit from considering the tensions highlighted in this Australian story as they plan and navigate their own sustainability journeys.


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Zarin Salter ([dagger]), Grady Venville & Nancy Longnecker

University of Western Australia

([dagger]) Address for correspondence: Zarin Salter, PhD Candidate, Graduate School of Education, The University of Western Australia, M428, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia. Email:

Author Biographies

Zarin Salter is a PhD Candidate in the field of Education for Sustainability at the University of Western Australia. Zarin's research explores the impact of whole-school approaches to education for sustainability on adoption of environmentally responsible attitudes and behaviours by upper-primary students and their families.

Grady Venville is Winthrop Professor of Science Education at the University of Western Australia. Grady has published widely in international and national journals on curriculum integration, conceptual change, and cognitive acceleration and is co-editor of the science education textbook, 'The Art of Teaching Science'

Associate Professor Nancy Longnecker coordinates the Science Communication program at The University of Western Australia. Her research areas include informal science education, volunteering, teaching science communication and impact of communication on public attitudes and policy. Nancy is author of over 60 edited books, book chapters and refereed papers. One of her aims is to improve effectiveness of science education experiences.
Figure 2: Detailed timeline of sustainability activities at the study
school since beginning the partnership with Millennium Kids

 Time Event

June 2008 Millennium Kids hired as sustainability facilitator

July 2008 Whole-school: Millennium Kids Conference 2008, July
 Sustainability Committee established, July 26th

August 2008 Whole-school: The green games; mini-olympics,
 cultural sharing
 Year 4: Assume responsibility for school recycling
 Whole-school: School newsletter goes digital

September 2008 Sustainability Committee: Attend West Australian
 Youth Environment Conference, September 19th & 20th

October 2008 Year 1: Adopt a pond
 Year 2: Plant a veggie garden
 Year 1: Start a worm farm
 Year 4: Enter Quest Atlantis; simulated
 environmental investigations
 Sustainability Committee: "No plastic bags"

November 2008 Year 5: Walk through time; researched the history
 and vegetation of local Swan River
 Year 1: Worm tea for sale
 Sustainability Committee: Report
 Local council Bushland Management Plan: All staff
 support the plan by integrating into relevant
 learning areas

December 2008 Staff professional development: Point to port;
 history, geography, environmental, Indigenous
 Friends of the Bush: Many students and their
 families became volunteers of the local community

January 2009 Whole-school: From river to sea; school mural

February 2009 Year 6: The river past
 Whole-school: Millennium Kids Conference 2009

March 2009 Pre Primary: How the river was
 Staff Meeting: Local author of 'Dead Men's
 Dreaming' addressed the staff; Indigenous story
 Year 5: Sustaining culture, sustaining country;
 Whole-school: 'Walking School Bus' begins; three
 days per week, driven by parents
 Whole-school: Adoption of local park
 Whole-school: Harmony Day with Indigenous dancing
 Pre-Primary: Spinafex pigeon; art project with
 Indigenous links
 Whole-school: Change for good; fundraising for

April 2009 Whole-school: Class art projects
 Year 2: Invite community to share their stories;
 Indigenous stories
 Friends of the Library: Parents group start a mural
 of the Swan River
 Year 5: From port to point
 Whole-school: Join River Guardians
 Year 6: Prepare seedlings & activities for
 grandparents day
 Year 5: Kindy observations
 Year 5: River science; unit begins

May 2009 Whole-school: Students enter local literature award
 Sustainability Committee: The Hype Hotline;
 students on radio show
 Whole-school: National Walk Safely to School Day,
 May 15th
 Whole-school: Grandparents Day
 Friends of the Bush: planted seedlings
 Year 5: New Norcia camp; Indigenous & historical

June 2009 Year 6: Digital dreaming; virtual activity, Indigenous
 Year 3: International lunch; cultural sharing
 Year 5: Popcorn fundraiser for African school
 Whole-school: Grandparents return nurtured
 seedlings ready for planting in local park
 Year 3: Visit Burarra; virtual activity, indigenous
 Friends of the Library: parents group continues
 work on Swan River mural
 Year 5: Student wins local literature award
 Year 5: Secret women's business; visit from
 Indigenous Nyoongar women

July 2009 Year 5: Make dolls for African children
 Year 5: Ntshidi Initiative; South African connection
 Year 5: Community service announcements
 Teacher visits Millennium Kids South Africa
 Teacher Reports after South Africa visit
 Year 4: Indigenous dance program

August 2009 Whole-school: Partnership with Centre for Water
 Research, University of Western Australia
 Whole-school: project meeting, Schools for Water
 Research and Management
 Whole-school: Web tools for water management

September 2009 Whole-School: Digital dreaming; the story grows
 Year 4: Knob Creek; simulated river watch
 Whole-School: Facelift for local park; seedlings
 planted by students
 Whole-School: Crazy shoes to kick-start fund; walk
 to school day & fundraising for local hospital

October 2009 Whole-School: School joins collaborative project
 with Slow Food International; plans for school
 veggie & bush tucker garden in 2010
 Teacher wins Ribbons of Blue award
 Year 5: Two students win Ribbons of Blue climate
 change competition for their short film
 School is finalist for Best School Garden
 competition run by Garden Gurus

November 2009 Whole-School: Official launch of Schools for Water
 Research and Management
 Two teachers attend AuSSI--WA professional development
 Pre-Primary: Pupils show real vision; charity
 Year 5: Make dolls for African children

December 2009 Play pump proposed for school gardens in 2010
 Staff professional development: A river runs through
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Author:Salter, Zarin; Venville, Grady; Longnecker, Nancy
Publication:Australian Journal of Environmental Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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