How to be an eco-delegate in junior high or high school?

Since 2020, every middle and high school class has had to elect one or two eco-delegates. They act as a kind of spokesperson for sustainable development issues among their fellow students, and can implement school actions such as installing composters or reducing food waste.

AdobeStock_490521365 ©Довидович Михаил -

Evelyne Bois, University of OrléansAurélie Zwang, University of Montpellier and Mandarine Hugon, University of Orléans

Our analysis of institutional frameworks, complemented by a study of what students say, reveals a tension between injunctions and realities on the ground. Taking into account the point of view of students, in the midst of constructing 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 made in schools.

Eco-delegates: strong demands from the institution

In connection with the policy of labeling schools, the term "eco-delegate", without being precisely defined, appeared for the first time in 2013 in a ministerial text. Today, eco-delegate students provide support in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

They are encouraged to propose their projects to various representative bodies at school and academy level (steering committees, school life councils). At 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 are also expected to acquire skills they can apply as future citizens and "economic players".

The vade-mecum on education for sustainable development specifies that the role of eco-delegates is to embody changes in individual and collective behavior:

"Eco-delegates, young volunteer sentinels on the move for sustainable development, commit their availability and involvement by defining and pursuing quantifiable and/or observable objectives and adopting a role-modeling attitude."

These recommendations mainly frame education for sustainable development in terms of good behavior (ecogestures) and good school management (energy saving, wastesorting, etc.). Students see themselves as having a strong sense of responsibility towards social and environmental issues.

Small actions but not up to expectations

In order to question the experience and viewpoint of eco-delegates, interviews were conducted with 22 middle and high school students in 2021-2022, in a variety of school contexts.

Whatever their school level, the eco-delegates interviewed feel responsible and want to take action in their school to "help/preserve the planet" by involving their fellow students and the adults around them: "I try to get my family involved in all the actions at school" (middle-school student).

Students say they are encouraged to take small actions in the classroom (communicating, collecting paper, turning off lights and computers, etc.) and around the school (installing recycling garbage cans, sorting waste, limiting food waste, etc.), which are more eco-gestures linked to anecdotal practices than projects with a long-term impact.

This is a clear reference to the examples of actions proposed in the guides for eco-delegates, published in 2021 by the French Ministry of Education and the French Environment and Energy Management Agency. Eco-delegates are described as "decision-makers", "relays", "guarantors", "co-pilots" and "budding project leaders". These terms and the illustrations used build up an image of the eco-delegate as an "ordinary hero".

The lack of reflexivity about the actions carried out, as perceived by the students interviewed, could suggest that the scheme is part of a non-critical orientation to education, in which students would be receptacles for the behaviorist prescriptions of the school institution.

Commitments but lack of resources

The commitment of the eco-delegates interviewed is linked to a strong motivation to act for the environment, to feel useful and to agree with the ideas defended so that they can be applied in their different living environments: "I feel very concerned by climate change and I really wanted to act to change things", observes one high school student. "We realize that there are problems, that we need to help our planet and even biodiversity, and so on. And I think we need someone to represent that," adds a high-school student.

It's a large-scale vision that seems to motivate students, beyond actions within a single school. These students have long-term projects, aimed in particular at opening up to the world, and manage to put them into practice in some schools (collections for associations; cleanliness walk; "solidarity for the Congo").

There is therefore a gap between their aspirations and the institution's objectives, which aim to apply official texts, including the labeling of schools. Moreover, the students interviewed were not aware of the existence of this label.

[Nearly 80,000 readers trust The Conversation newsletter to better understand the world's major issues. Subscribe today]

The roles prescribed by the educational institution do not always correspond to the reality on the ground. Numerous constraints seem to prevent students from fully carrying out their missions.

The students we interviewed pointed out their difficulties in communicating and promoting their actions to other students: "I talk to them about it very quickly, but I don't think they pay any attention to it, I don't think they care at all", noted one pupil. What's more, the role of eco-delegate loses legitimacy when that of the class delegate is seen as more important: "people often tell us that we're a bit useless, that anyway there are delegates who already come up with ideas". Winner of the 2021 Eco-Delegate Award in the middle school category (Collège Courteline, Paris).

We also note obstacles to decision-making. While secondary school students say they find it hard to make choices about what to do, high school students point to time constraints and the lack of diagnostic tools that would enable them to think about projects linked to the real needs of the school.

What space for creative freedom is offered to them, so that they can become "actors and authors", combining action and reflection, and thus participating in change? Offering this space implies a real change in educational practices. It seems essential to question the place accorded to eco-delegates in different school contexts.

The need for better integration into the facility

Our studies show that eco-delegates are more motivated and more likely to take action when professionals trust them, consider them capable of thinking and acting, support them in their questioning, and promote their actions within the establishment, notably by clarifying their roles and missions.

Similarly, the participation of eco-delegates in the school's governing bodies enables them to discover how the school operates, to know who to contact for projects and to adapt to the school's needs. Finally, the collective work carried out during meetings or training courses enables them to meet new people (opening up to others), feel part of a group and valued as individuals in their own right.

Taking [ students' voices] into account and developing proactive school policies seems essential to enable eco-delegates to play a full part, but also to develop an education in sustainable development tailored to their high expectations. To achieve this, professionals are essential, and it seems essential to question the way in which they see their role in supporting eco-delegates.

Evelyne Bois, Senior Lecturer in Education and Training, University of OrléansAurélie Zwang, Senior Lecturer in Education and Training. Environmental education. Didactique des sciences, University of Montpellier and Mandarine Hugon, Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology of Development and Education, ERCAE Laboratory, University of Orléans

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.