Perhaps the greenest school in England...

Written by: Nick Bannister | Published:
Green team: Pupils from Canon Burrows Primary in the nearby Taunton Brook nature reserve. The school, led by Suzanne Fildes (top), has been described as ‘perhaps the greenest school in England’

How do primary schools translate children’s anxieties about our planet into practical learning opportunities? Nick Bannister spoke to a Greater Manchester primary which has forged a national reputation for its approach to environmental education

Like the Australian bush or the Brazilian rainforest, global concern about the future of the planet is now fiercely aflame.

Most primary leaders and their teams will share these anxieties for our environment, and many will be searching for ways to make a contribution through introducing environmental themes into the classroom and encouraging children and staff to work together to make their sites more sustainable.

It is, of course, a question of how to get serious about the environment, especially when there is a range of support and advice now available and so many other pressing priorities that schools have to tackle at the same time.

Back in the noughties it all seemed slightly more straightforward. There were strategies and toolkits produced by government school leadership agency NCSL, for example. But those grand government-backed strategies disappeared in the years immediately following the 2008 global financial crash, even though young people’s concerns about the environment and their appetite to take positive action continued to grow.

Guidance for developing sustainable schools was published by the Department for Education (DfE) in 2012 – the document is still available on the department’s website – accompanied by the message that the department is committed to sustainable development and that schools “perform better when they take responsibility for their own improvement”.

There are many schools around the country that are seeking out sources of support and forging their own impressive paths. Take Canon Burrows CE Primary in Greater Manchester, for example.

The school has been an enthusiastic advocate of environmental education since the late 1980s and was described by Keep Britain Tidy’s Eco-Schools education programme as “perhaps the greenest school in England”. The school has recently been given a lifetime achievement award by the initiative.

Situated in the thin green lung between Ashton under Lyne and Oldham, the school’s sustainability journey began when it played a major role in establishing the nearby Taunton Brook nature reserve more than 30 years ago.

Current headteacher Suzanne Fildes sees environmental education as a way of helping young people to take a serious interest in their future – and act on the changing environmental issues they face today and will face tomorrow. She says that an ethos of serving the common good helps the school to fulfil its vision of a just and harmonious society where pupils achieve their highest standards in attainment, behaviour, self-esteem and understanding of the world.

She told Headteacher Update: “We ensure that our curriculum embodies an ethos of action-taking, challenging injustice and becoming ‘agents of change’ for ourselves, our relationships and our communities, from the local level to the global.”

Environmental education has two elements at Canon Burrows – what is taught in the classroom and what happens outside. Both elements feed into each other, with the nature reserve regularly used for science and geography learning, in particular for lessons about the global threat to biodiversity.

The old mantra of the environmental movement – “think global, act local” – has been translated into action at Canon Burrows. The school’s eco-committee has started a walk to school scheme and is working with the school council to reduce plastic use – a campaign stimulated by the current affairs discussions the children have as part of geography and science topics.

Pupils have a key role in determining the shape of environmental education at the school through the eco-committee and school council, says Ms Fildes. Practical action plays a major part.

The school works hard to conserve energy. The EYFS building is insulated by a roof covered with sedum plants, while solar panels generate energy and children monitor switching off lights and electronic appliances when they are not in use.

Children queue for litter pickers at lunchtime and enjoy the responsibility of keeping the school grounds free from litter. In fact, several children borrow the pickers at weekends, and encourage their parents and family to join them in clean-ups around the local community.

Ms Fildes continued: “With some of the financial issues schools and our families currently face, I’m also conscious that taking environmental education seriously benefits the school financially and supports our children and families in making savings at home.

“For example, we have a weekly award for the class who turn off technology and lights when not in use. This creates competition and excitement. Parents have told our staff that this awareness transfers into the family home and parents are often reminded at home to switch off plug sockets, lights and taps when they’re not in use.”

Transformation: Pupils from Canon Burrows Primary planting in their butterfly garden

This emphasis at Canon Burrows on caring for the environment on a local and global level has delivered real benefits for the community, Ms Fildes explained.

She points to the virtual absence of vandalism in the Taunton Brook nature reserve and believes this comes from the fact that the young adults have grown up caring for the stream, planting in the local area and building paths and pond-dipping platforms. This, she says, “gives them a love and respect for their local area”.

Canon Burrows has developed links to a range of local and national outside agencies and Ms Fildes says that much of their environmental education work would not have happened if they had not become involved in Keep Britain Tidy’s Eco-Schools programme.

Pupils have just completed an environmental review of the school as part of an application for its 10th Green Flag – an awards scheme run by the Eco-Schools programme. Their action plan includes developing systems to use waste water in the school gardens, installing technology to read and monitor energy use, and reducing plastics use alongside other recycling projects.

The school is also affiliated to the Manchester Environmental Education Network (MEEN), an organisation which promotes the sustainability agenda within schools and to agencies working with schools.

Junior members of the eco-committee held a video conference with pupils in Brazil, comparing soil degradation in Manchester and South America. The eco-committee also attended a green summit organised by the Mayor of Greater Manchester and in 2014 pupils audited the energy consumption of Manchester Cathedral. Their recommendations helped shape the complete overhaul of the building’s heating and energy use.

The choice of support available does present schools with challenges. Ms Fildes believes that there are too many competing agencies in the environmental education field, not as much support as schools would like and that government must once again step up.

“It’s become extremely clear in 2019 that children are increasingly taking the lead in confronting the climate crisis,” she said.

“If educating the next generation in environmental education is seen as a priority, which surely it must be to avoid climate catastrophe, the lead must be taken by government.”

  • Nick Bannister is a freelance education writer.

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