Since 2020, each middle and high school class must have elected one or two eco-delegates . They are, in a way, spokespersons for the issues of sustainable development with their peers and can implement actions in establishments such as the installation of composters or the reduction of food waste.
Our analysis of the institutional frameworks supplemented by the study of the speeches held by the students reveals a tension between injunctions and realities on the ground. Taking into account the point of view of students, in the midst of building their identity in a world in transition , highlights the gap between the urgency of the situation now widely understood by the young population and the modest progress in educational establishments. .
Eco-delegates: strong demands from the institution
In connection with the labeling policy for schools, the term “eco-delegate”, without being precisely defined, appeared for the first time in 2013 in a ministerial text . Today, student eco-delegates are support for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) .
They are encouraged to propose their projects within the various representative bodies at the scales of the establishment and the academy (steering committees, college or high school student councils). At the national level, their actions can be recognized by the “eco-delegate action of the year” award and highlighted as examples on the ministry’s website. Eco-delegates must also acquire skills that they can use as future citizens and “economic actors”
The vade-mecum on education for sustainable development specifies that the role of eco-delegates is to embody changes in individual and collective behavior:
“The eco-delegates, young volunteer sentinels in motion for sustainable development, commit their availability and their involvement by defining and pursuing quantifiable and/or observable objectives and adopting a modeling attitude. »
These recommendations mainly frame education for sustainable development in education for good behavior (eco-gestures) and good management of the school establishment (energy saving, waste sorting , etc.). Students see themselves as bearers of a strong responsibility vis-à-vis social and environmental problems.
Small actions but not up to expectations
In order to question the experience and point of view of eco-delegates , interviews with 22 middle and high school students were carried out in 2021-2022, in various school contexts.
Whatever the school level, the eco-delegates interviewed feel responsible and want to act in their school to “help/preserve the planet” by involving their classmates and the adults around them: “All actions at school, I try to get my family involved” (schoolgirl).
Pupils say they are led to do small things in the classroom (communicate; collect papers; turn off lights and computers, etc.) and in the school (install recycling bins, sort waste, limit food waste , corresponding more to eco-gestures linked to anecdotal practices than to projects with a long-term scope.
This refers to the examples of actions proposed by the guides for eco-delegates , published in 2021 by the Ministry of National Education and the Environment and Energy Management Agency. Eco-delegates are designated as “decision-makers”, “relays”, “guarantors”, “co-pilots” and finally, “budding project managers”. These terms and the illustrations used construct the image of an eco-delegate as an “ordinary hero” .
The absence of reflexivity on the actions carried out, perceived by the pupils questioned, could suggest that the device is part of a non-“critical” orientation of education, in which the pupils would be receptacles of the behaviorist prescriptions of the school institution .
Commitments but lack of resources
The commitment of the eco-delegates questioned is linked to a strong motivation to act for the environment, to feel useful and to be in agreement with the ideas defended so that they are applied in their different places of life: “ I feel very concerned about climate change and I really wanted to act to change things,” observes a high school student. “We realize that there are problems, that we have to help our planet and even biodiversity, etc. And I think you need someone to represent that, ”adds a high school student.
It is a large-scale vision that seems to motivate students, beyond actions within a single school. These students have long-term projects, aiming in particular to open up to the world, and manage to make them a reality in certain establishments (collections for associations; cleanliness march; “solidarity for the Congo”).
A gap is therefore noted between their aspirations and the objectives of the institution, aimed at the application of official texts, including the labeling of schools . Moreover, the students questioned are not aware of the existence of this label.
The roles prescribed by the school institution do not always correspond to the reality on the ground. Many constraints seem to prevent students from fully carrying out their missions.
The pupils questioned notably point out their difficulties in communicating, in valuing their actions with other pupils: “I talk to them about it quickly, but I don’t think they pay attention to it, I think they don’t care a bit” , notes a college student. In addition, the role of eco-delegate loses legitimacy when that of class representative is considered more important: “people are often telling us that we are a little useless, that in any case there is delegates who are already proposing ideas”.
We also see barriers to decision-making. When college students say they have trouble making choices about the actions to be taken, high school students recall their time constraints but also the lack of diagnoses that would allow them to think about projects related to the real needs of the establishment.
What space of creative freedom is offered to them so that they can become “actors and authors” , combine action and reflection, and thus participate in change? Offering this space implies a real change in educational practices. It seems essential to question the place given to eco-delegates according to school contexts.
The need for better integration into the establishment
Our studies show that eco-delegates are more motivated and make proposals to act when professionals trust them, consider them capable of thinking and acting, support them in their questions, value their actions within the institution, in particular by explaining their roles and missions.
Similarly, the participation of eco-delegates in the bodies makes it possible to discover the functioning of the establishment, to know who to contact for the realization of projects and to adapt to the needs of the establishment. Finally, the collective work carried out during meetings or training allows them to meet people (openness to others), to feel that they belong to a group and are valued as a whole person.
Considering [ students’ voice ] and developing proactive school policies seems essential to allow eco-delegates to be fully involved but also to develop education for sustainable development adapted to their high expectations. To do this, professionals are essential and it now seems essential to question the way in which they consider their support role with eco-delegates.
Author Bios: Evelyn Wood is a Lecturer in education and training sciences at the University of Orléans, Aurelie Zwang is a Lecturer in education and training sciences. Environmental education. Didactics of science at the University of Montpellier and Tangerine Hugon is a Lecturer in social psychology of development and education, ERCAE Laboratory also at the University of Orléans