What has happened to sustainability?

Written by: HTU | Published:

The sustainable schools agenda used to be a key element of government policy, but now it is up to schools to decide how they approach the issue. Nick Bannister talked to one head about how and why his school continues prioritise environmental issues

You don’t even have to step inside Hampton Hill Junior School in Middlesex to know where its passions lie. The roof of the main school building is covered in solar panels, a wind turbine towers above the school and there is an outdoor classroom with carefully cultivated vegetable patches and contented chickens.

Headteacher Bill Jerman says that for him, his colleagues and the school’s 350 pupils, taking a sustainable approach to everything they do is at the core of the school’s ethos.

He told Headteacher Update: “Creating a sustainable school is a key part of what we aim to do here. We believe that the young people in our care are the leaders and decision-makers of the future and as such, their generation will play a pivotal role in determining the future of our planet and its resources.

“We believe that we as a school have a major part to play in helping them to know about and understand the issues so that they can make informed decisions when they are older.”

Hampton Hill is certainly walking the talk. In 2006, the school became one of the National College’s Leading Sustainable Schools. Two years later it became the only school in England to be a “Knowledge School for Sustainability” through the London Challenge programme.

In 2009, Hampton Hill won the Sustainable Schools London Teaching Award and the school’s approach to using sustainability in its curriculum was commented upon by Ofsted inspectors, who rated the school “outstanding” in 2011.

More than just sustainability

The United Nations Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainability is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, and this has long been ingrained within Hampton Hill’s curriculum.

Mr Jerman explained: “It’s entrenched in the curriculum here and most subjects will have a very strong element of sustainability. We have some amazing projects that really bring out sustainable elements with the children. We provide them with many opportunities to participate in a range of extra-curricular activities which we hope will create lifelong interests and passions for them.

“It’s had a real impact on student leadership. Our eco-team is made up of around 50 pupils from year 3 upwards. They meet weekly and manage a whole range of tasks around the school. This might include things like keeping the sustainability displays up-to-date and checking on our recycling efforts.

“The children are very focused. They are very interested in being involved and finding out things about the sustainability agenda. Their self-confidence has grown noticeably since they have become involved.

“(For example), the group hosted a teacher from another school recently who is a new sustainability co-ordinator and gave her a guided tour of the school.”

How did the school start?

“We started at the top end with a global perspective,” explained Mr Jerman. “We looked at energy use with a project on food and water consumption. At the same time we were having work done to the school buildings – the local authority wanted to replace the old boiler with one exactly the same, but we wanted a more environmentally friendly approach.”

There followed an audit of every aspect of the school, from buildings and grounds to purchasing and waste, using the “eight doorways” framework developed by the then Department for Education and Skills to help schools become more sustainable. Things then moved on. How the school addresses sustainability in the way it functions is important, but it has now become a deep theme in the children’s learning and development as well.

“Sustainability is environmental sustainability – the preservation of the earth,” Mr Jerman continued. “But it is also about sustainability of the person. This is not just about kids having a view and a role on resources. It’s also about that extra element of making the child themselves sustainable – helping them to develop interests. This was about having a broad curriculum that gives the opportunity for lifelong learning.

“All good primary schools do that but they do not necessarily see it as sustainability. To us it is as much about making the child sustainable for the future and keeping them going in the right direction as it is about the environment.”

Sharing practice

Hampton Hill is keen to share its approach to sustainability. For the past four years the school has hosted an annual sustainability conference which welcomes school leaders from around the country and even overseas.

This year’s event, to be held at the school in May, is billed as a showcase that will explore the integration of sustainability into the curriculum and ways of engaging young people. The programme includes workshops on these themes, including leading sustainability in a school, developing an eco-team, making energy exciting and developing a school garden.

The school is engaging with around 100 other schools now, networking with them and sharing good practice. Mr Jerman continued: “These are schools that have been to past conferences and we keep in touch. We go into each other’s schools regularly to share what we’ve been doing.”

Mr Jerman shared his six tips for schools which are looking to embrace and prioritise the sustainability agenda:

• Make sure that sustainability is part of the school development plan and integrated into the curriculum.
• Spread the load so a range of people lead – make it sustainable.
• Involve the pupils, both practically and in the planning and decision-making.
• Make sure you have a clear and well-communicated vision – and a “can-do” attitude.
• Be flexible, patient and take risks.
• Network and share ideas with others. Connect with other organisations and individuals and share their expertise.

A changing agenda

The commitment to sustainability has continued at Hampton Hill against a background of changing priorities in national education. The issue of sustainability has taken something of a back seat in recent years as education policy-makers have moved towards a focus on structural changes to the school system.

The Department for Education says that it wants schools to work out for themselves how they should “do” sustainability.

A statement said: “We want schools to make their own judgements on how sustainable development should be reflected in their ethos, day-to-day operations and through education for sustainable development. Those judgements should be based on sound knowledge and local needs.”

Mr Jerman is adamant that sustainability still has a crucial part to play in primary schools. “On the one side there is pressure for English and maths results and there is the potential for a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on this,” he said. “But it’s a balancing act for schools. Sustainability can impact in a range of ways.”

• Nick Bannister is a freelance education writer.

Further information
• Hampton Hill Junior School’s one-day conference takes place on Friday, May 24. The event, Sustainability and Young People Making a Difference, will “showcase and explore the integration of sustainability into the curriculum and explore ways of engaging young people to make a difference”. Booking information is available from Kristina Phelps at k.phelps@hamptonhill.richmond.sch.uk.
• More information about sustainability, including best practice advice and tips, is available on the Department for Education website: www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/policiesandprocedures/a0070736/sd.
• The Sustainable Schools Alliance was formed in 2011 to “drive change in the education system so that all schools put sustainability at the heart of their curriculum, their campus and their community”. It provides support and resources http://sustainable-schools-alliance.org.uk/.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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