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:

International Climate Champions

16 05 2009

About a month ago myself and the Head of Sustainability at Bishop Challoner School took one of our year 9 students to a conference in Birmingham organised by the British Council.  The student along with some of her peers from around the country had been selected to take part in a project whereby young people will devise initiatives that will help people adopt behaviours that will limit their carbon footprint.

On the British Council’s web site the initiative is explained thus:

Young people are at the heart of the British Council’s activity to combat climate change because they are best placed to highlight the effect of climate change for future generations.  Passionate about making a real and lasting difference, they are provided with support and training to help them take their climate change project into school, communities and regions.  Discussion and exchange of ideas with people from other countries also helps broaden their awareness of the problem.

Critically the ICC  initiative is driven first and foremost by the champions themselves. The British Council provides the framework in which ideas can grow and flourish but the direction comes firmly from the young people themselves.

The International Climate Champions initiative has already brought together young people from 13 countries to work on a range of practical projects.

The aim is to extend this activity to other countries and build a network of champions around the world dedicated to raising awareness and encouraging behaviour change in the area of climate change.

Over the weekend the young people worked extremely hard to articulate and develop their projects. The facilitators (Dr Laura Grant of Laura Grant Associates and Mary Stansfield from the British Council) had set up sessions to help the young people pitch and present their ideas as well as mind mapping to think through their ideas thoroughly. The weekend was all about the students not teachers or parents (some of whom had accompanied their children) and so I took myself off to explore Birmingham and had a look around the wonderful Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  The way the whole weekend was organised and pitched to the young people by Dr Laura Grant and was brilliant for the young peoples’ confidence and motivation. Our student said that she had really enjoyed and got a lot from it.

On the Saturday evening the young people went to Birmingham City Square where the Town Hall lights went out as part of the Earth Hour protest.  The young people stopped people in the street and entreated them to make pledges to alter their behaviour so they would consume less resources, be it through reducing, reusing or recycling.  After this a photographer, who had been arranged by Dan Tyte of Working Word PR (who also led a session on communications with the young people on Sunday), came and took pictures of the young people in the dark, their faces lit up only by torches.   These can be found on flickr .

Our student’s idea is to devise a website using the ning platform, which she has now done, called  ‘cool sustainable schools’ which will enable communication between schools across the borough of Tower Hamlets regarding sustainability issues:  and, as she put it on the ning site set up by the British Council:

My Short Term Goals are : 1 Contact Schools in Tower Hamlets 2 Design a Badge Competition to promote energy saving 3 Contact People who are going to help 4 Set up a website for the borough (Tower Hamlets) 5 Contact Badge-making Companies…(she goes on).

We also have help from the Tower Hamlets Waste Education Project who have been helping with pro-environmental projects at the school in conjunction with myself at the school for some years, and the team at the Professional Development Centre, also in Tower Hamlets, to enable us to liaise with other schools in the borough.  Finally, it looks as if the Head of Sustainability, Rhiannon Scutt, has managed to set up recycling at the school (we have had some great help here from Cassie Jeens Williams at the charity Global Action Plan), and our work with the Eco Committee is on-going, most recently I took students to see part of Alternative Fashion Week at Spitalfields Market.

Speaking of the ning platform, I heard last week that my paper on ‘Innovative Methodological Approaches To Pro-Environmental Behaviour’ was accepted by the Royal Geographical Society and I will be delivering it in Manchester at the end of August.  I will be talking about the ways social networking sites and associated web 2.0 technology can be used to enable the changes in behaviour that are necessary if we are to tackle the many issues around climate change, primarily focusing on the work I have carried out at the school. I recently spoke to Tessy Britton of Thriving who has also been carrying out research in related areas and she was very encouraging about this work, so I feel as if I am doing something positive even though there is little official sanction or reward for it.  Positively,  it looks like the British Council is ahead of the curve as they have a number of ning sites for various aspects of their Climate Champions project.  Ning is, most simplistically, a wonderful, flexible device that enables communication and sharing of ideas between groups of people quickly and easily.  This ease of communication is essential if we are to formulate the innovative ideas that will enable us to respond quickly to the challenges of climate change.

None of these ideas are policy, simply the result of my ongoing interest in Media and Communications.  As part of my Cultural Studies Masters dissertation at Goldsmiths College I have been reading a number of papers published by the Innovation Unit, a government think tank within DCSF, which explores the idea of disciplined innovation and ‘taking innovation to scale.’  I wonder if there is scope to embed what we are doing at Bishop Challoner as ‘good practice’ nationwide to facilitate the transition to Sustainable Schools (envisaged at present as happening by 2020).  One of the main problems mentioned by the think tank, and indeed something that I personally dislike about our secondary schools, is that they are so large and impersonal, giant exam result-producing bureaucracies.  The ning platform enables instantaneous communication across a large site where often members of staff rarely get to see each other to collaborate on initiatives such as sustainability.  It is also a form of networked communication that sidesteps the hierarchical nature of the school system.  In this way it enables innovation yet at the same time could be seen as threatening by those in power due to its ‘bottom up’ nature.  This has not really come up yet as an issue, but I plan to write to the Director of Bishop Challoner about the Royal Geographic Society paper and the use of the social networking site and bring what we are doing to her attention. I hasten to add that I have let the senior manager with responsibility for sustainability know what we’re doing, I am not an utter maverick!  Since there has been more pressure from government about the impending transformation to Sustainable Schools, no matter that this is not in fact statutory (much to the disappointment of Verity Zurita at the Government Office for London) such matters are at last in the sights of school leadership which did in effect lead to the opening of the Head of Sustainability post at the school.

Finally, this week we found out that recycling is due to begin at the Girls School (the school I work on is over three sites: girls, boys and sixth form).  It has been quite a battle to get it in place, not least having to liaise with the care takers and cleaners who will have to deal with the extra sacks of rubbish.  Okay so there shouldn’t be more waste, it is simply that we will be splitting what can be disposed of and what can be used again.  It was the man in charge of premises, James Rankin, who has given the final nod in terms of staffs’ willingness to deal with extra bags.  I can’t tell you the amount of angst this has been causing.  You would think that it would be a relatively straightforward matter but I know that Ms Scutt and the Eco Committee have worked really hard on it, not to mention Cassie Jeens Williams from the charity Global Action Plan!  It would be fantastic to take the whole sustainability agenda on from the lamentable ability of much of society to recycle, Bridget’s post on permaculture is, I think, timely.  Last I heard was opposition to the idea of the school children where we are having an allotment due to contamination in the soil.  Raised beds perhaps?  I did look into getting an allotment on Cable Street (they are next to the school), but was told that there is a waiting list of four years.  It doesn’t seem so long now does it?

Cool it schools

12 05 2009

Cool It Schools is a simple web-based project with a really big ambition of sending a strong message from UK schools to the participants in the Copenhagen Climate Change conference in December 2009. I want to endorse it because it is a great example of a project that has started small but amplified itself for a greater impact. It has begun as a creative enquiry project in the Charter School in East Dulwich, South London. Students have worked with artist and curator, Jane Langley, to create a big visual and sonic installation exploring ecology and climate change. It has expanded into a resource that will amplify it for much greater impact.

Cool It Schools asks children and young people to do their own creative enquiry projects, using creative collaborative approaches to research and communicate topics to do with ecology and climate change. The website will soon allow you to upload your own topic plans and outcomes. It’s not overtly stated in the website, but there is nothing wrong with museums, galleries and science organisations initiating or supporting a schools project as long as the school registers on the site and takes the lead.

Sustainable Schools Forum, Friday 13th March, red letter day of sorts…

19 03 2009

Bridget, who set up this blog has expressed doubts about work being done to address climate change and the broader ecological crisis and that maybe it should be uncoupled from ‘sustainability initiatives’.  A timely remark I feel given the day I spent on Friday at the London Sustainable Schools Forum.

In this case it seems somewhat sadly belated (but better late than never?) that the SSF featured an absolutely mind-blowing presentation by  David Gardner from the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority)  called Sustainable Development in Action- curriculum guidance for schools.  This presentation seemed to be indicating that government has finally got its head round the need to embed the principle of sustainability throughout the education sector, in particular the lumbering bureaucracies that are our secondary schools.  The news was that, no, as I mentioned in the comments I made to Bridget’s first post, sustainable schools are not ‘statutory’, but yes, policy makers and the QCA have written a plethora of policy documents (and even Mr Gardner admitted that the amount of documents produced was off-putting to frightening for any one with a nascent interest in these issues) that invoke the sea-change that is needed if our schools, and by extension, our communities, are to become sustainable.  But somehow without explicitly stating that this is an imperative or diktat from Whitehall.  To me this was what I heard this morning described by Erica Grigg (Carbon Outreach) as government ‘doubletalk’ at its most blinding.  I was impressed, being someone who likes to wield words and knows the power of the diplomatic approach.  However we were left in no doubt that it is down to us, the humble foot soldiers of the ‘green revolution’ (or some such phrase) to carry the metaphorical torch forward, in spite of the impressive array of policy documents, which I am sure I can go into more detail within later posts.

This truly seems to be a ‘people’s crusade’ and something that the government is prepared to address with little authority at the moment.  I’m thinking particularly about the controversy over  the new coal fired power stations that are planned.

And talking of Kingsnorth, for that is what I believe that the first new coal power station is known as, this leads me to the ‘people’s premier’ of’  ‘the Age of Stupid’ which I attended at Shepherds Bush on Sunday. Sold out which was great.  Bridget pointed out that the Postlethwaite character is actually a curator, sitting alone in a vast shrine to the doings of humanity, marooned amidst a watery dessert of a sea.  Is this our future?  Cataloging and preserving the calamity of the twenty-first century that we wrecked upon ourselves?  One of the key problems that was highlighted in the film is that people often object to wind farms on the grounds that they ‘spoil the view’.  I personally cannot see what is so unattractive about wind farms, I actually think they are quite beautiful.  This seems to be a particularly British form of ‘nimbyism’, symptomatic of a larger obsession with property value and prices.  A wind farm nearby means that property might be worth less and hence it has to be fought at all costs.  It is incredibly short sighted.  I don’t personally think that wind farms alone can be the answer to our energy problems and am not personally against nuclear power, when you see the violent opposition to wind farms and such like you need practical solutions and I am of the shade of green that feels okay with nuclear power.  I suppose that it part of the issue with the whole phenomenon of climate change, we know that is caused by too much carbon in the atmosphere, but there is no consensus, or in my opinion measured and sophisticated debate about the problem.  The trouble is that the green lobby are apt to moralise and there are plenty of people who unfortunately are utterly alienated by the preaching and associated fatalism.  It turns into a slanging match when we need to be utterly focused and organised to sort out this massive problem.  Work in schools is crucial because the more young people that see the environment and climate change as their problem, we can overcome some of the entrenched attitudes of many of the older generation who are quite happy to consume and be damned.  It would be fantastic to hear some really inspirational talk by Obama and it seems such a shame that our own government is knee deep in the financial crisis and the news that record numbers of people are out of work now, that they don’t seem to be able to prioritise this crucial issue.

I am taking a student  to a climate champion conference organised by the British Council in just over a week. She is mature, thoughtful and articulate, just the sort of leader we will need, if as I read in The Guardian today, from Professor John Beddington the Government’s chief scientist, we are approaching a ‘perfect storm’ where ‘food, water and energy shortages will unleash public unrest and international conflict’.

Just to lead back to where I started, one would think that yes, sustainability and climate change and the broader ecological crisis does need to be pulled apart.  This afternoon I interviewed on video with Phil Maxwell from the Tower Hamlets Waste Education project a handful of girls from year nine at Bishop Challoner School about their attitudes to climate change, sustainability and so on.  We were talking to the girls about their understanding of these issues.  They are lovely girls, really bright and articulate, but even they were struggling with the complex interdependence of the aforementioned concepts.  I think we expect people to take on board things that are incredibly complex and that the system is not really set up to allow the kind of thought that is needed to be fostered to move the situation on.  For example, at the SSF there was still anxiety about attacks from students who might still be climate change sceptics (hard to credit but they are still around), let alone the nuances of the debate that exists within those who wish to help ameliorate the situation or exactly how we are going to do that.  Sadly we can’t put the carbon back in the petrol, back in the oil, back in the ground.  But we need to address the fact we are stifling ourselves with carbon, that we live in a world where great swathes of the population are industrialising rapidly and climate related problems are already manifesting themselves.   Is it a form of imperialism that we are to tell Indian people that they shouldn’t enjoy low cost air flight?  If all the people in India who currently pile into trains find their wings and fly how can we hope to control carbon emissions?  Is the only way forward to take the moral high ground, reducing, reusing and recycling, or science having got us into this mess, can maybe get us out?  I am not a scientist, but a teacher of Media Studies.  Clearly we need to address what a wasteful society we live in and the paradigm of economic growth damn the consequences, but we also need to reconcile the facts that we live in a globalised world, and within that the importance of the aviation industry (also the fact that aviation fuel is not taxed and so flying is effectively subsidised by government), coupled with the fear of our leaders that we are going to be left behind on the world stage is we do not aggressively promote our capital as a great place to do business and the fixation that capital must continue to be allowed to flow unabated, although perhaps the stark realisation has hit home now after events of recent months that this is not a wholly good idea.  Furthermore  I am not convinced that by appealing to morality you can stop people travelling by aeroplane even though air flight is responsible for a great percentage of carbon that goes into the atmosphere.  At the moment, air flights are down, but that is due to the fact that the economy is shrinking, and all the mainstream commentators seem to be hoping that growth will continue once this recession is over!  In many ways air travel is positive, people broaden their world view, see other cultures and so on, exactly what cultural education aims to do.  So no easy answers. I feel honoured to be asked to contribute to this blog, I hope it will be a place for considered thought and a dialogue that will be a place where we can strategise to meet the challenges of Climate Change and associated issues and how it can be addressed through cultural heritage and related sectors.


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