Free to choose Sustainable Schools

28 09 2010

I’ve received an email from the Department of Education in response to my complaint about the axeing of the Sustainable Schools Initiative. I sent that complaint through a campaign organised by People and Planet.

Here’s an extract from the email, from Robert McAdam, Public Communications Unit:

“The government has committed itself to being the ‘greenest’ government ever. Ministers believe that it is important for schools to be sustainable and for children to learn about the key issues of sustainability. Most schools share this view and are already engaged in teaching pupils about sustainability using the large range of resources which are available. The government is committed to giving schools and teachers greater freedoms over what and how they teach. Ministers have announced their intention to review the National Curriculum in order to restore it to a core entitlement organised around subject disciplines. A smaller National Curriculum will allow schools more freedom and time to build on the core entitlement to provide a rich learning experience for all their pupils and use their professional judgement to organise learning as they see fit. It will still be up to schools to decide if becoming a sustainable school is the best way for them to operate, and the greater flexibility in the curriculum will allow schools wishing to do so an excellent opportunity to incorporate the teaching of sustainability into a broad and balanced curriculum.”

In short, they are concealing their decision to remove their funded support for sustainability in education (events, training, resources, awards, targets) with a mask of freedom and choice. Schools will be free to choose to aim for zero carbon operation and an environmentally aware approach, but they are entirely free not to, and if they want to do it they will have to find their own resources. There was an expectation that schools would make significant progress in eight ‘doorways’ to sustainability by 2020 and, as far as I can tell, there were no sanctions if schools didn’t reach that goal. So, they always were free to progress towards sustainability or not, but the difference now is that resourcing and motivation will be removed.

Another aspect of this response grates on me. This is the implication that Sustainable Schools was entirely a curriculum-related initiative, and that removing the initiative gives teachers more authority to decide what to teach. However, Sustainable Schools is also about how the school is managed and developed, about its buildings and grounds, how it enables the wider community to be sustainable and so on. The response is being used to spin a different aspect of ConDem policy.

There are so many reasons why schools should want to be sustainable. One of these is that it saves money. However, many schools may not grasp these reasons, as they succumb to pressure to be traditional or to specialise in subjects they believe are unrelated to sustainability. The most important reason to be a Sustainable School is that pupils become part of an organisation that is tackling by far the biggest threat to their future that any worldwide generation of children has ever faced.

I’m in the process of choosing a secondary school for my daughter. I may be biassed towards expressions of sustainability but I can see and feel the differences in quality between those that mention sustainability as important and those that don’t. I will name them as this is so important: Charter School and Kingsdale School have new buildings, with sustainable design at their heart, and they incorporate ecology into their arts provision. For example, Charter is the pilot school for the Cool it Schools initiative. Another great school we can choose is Sydenham School. Their vision mentions, up front, their work on environmental and sustainable development, its organic garden and its chickens! Our local school, Haberdashers Askes Hatcham College, on the other hand is a ‘good school’, but it has no mention of sustainability anywhere in its prospectus. What they do mention often are tradition, discipline, standards and skills for work. But it’s becoming clear that the skills for the future will be all about adapting to climate change and creating the conditions for sustained life on the planet. This means skills in engineering, technology, design, local food production, biodiversity awareness, empathy, creativity and imagination.  Though my daughter will opt for this school because it’s local, we’re very conscious of what it lacks. To me its lack of concern for sustainability seems to relate to its lack of promotion of creativity, design and arts education.

I also read a communication from Anne Finlayson, the CEO of Sustainability and Environmental Education, the organisation which has supported the Sustainable Schools Initiative so well. She talks about their negotiations with Government to ensure that this support remains in place and that their good work so far is not wasted.  Their questions include:

How will we all communicate effectively and efficiently with schools so that they can take a coherent, holistic approach to sustainability rather than a piecemeal approach?
How can we encourage schools to keep going with the 2020 target?
How can we continue to offer an updated and dynamic service to schools, signposting them to organisations, new programmes, new resources etc.?

If you want to help answer those questions and support SEEd, join as a member or contact them on Tel: 020 7420 4446 or Email:


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