Education for sustainability
At the Earth Summit back in 1992 it was recognized that education, at all levels, had a crucial role to play in helping citizens understand and act on issues relating to the welfare of people and the planet. The terms “education for sustainable development” (ESD) and “education for sustainability” (EFS) then began to become part of the educational vocabulary. With the proclamation of the World Decade devoted to “Education for Sustainable Development” in the period 2005-2014, the United Nations General Assembly pledged that education is inseparable from the goal of sustainable development. At the same time, the UN Economic Commission for Europe drew up a separate Education for Sustainable Development strategy in 2005.
Today, when the discourse regarding sustainability is ever more present in all areas of planning and development, the concept of ESD has also climbed the public agenda. ESD holds a strong position in all the educational programs and projects of the European Union. In the European Strategy for Sustainable Development, adopted in 2006, it is stated that: “Education is a prerequisite for promoting the behavioural changes and providing all citizens with the key competences needed to achieve sustainable development. Success in revising unsustainable trends will, to a large extent, depend on high-quality education for sustainable development.” In line with European, but also with international, developments several countries, such as The Netherlands and UK have already drawn their own national programmes or strategies for ESD.
Whilst the education for sustainability can be seen as a cross-curricular theme to which all subjects could contribute, it received a significant boost when the focus was widened to the notion of “sustainable schools”. This moved issues of sustainability from an optional element in the curriculum to a matter of whole-school policy affecting every aspect of school life.
In practice, there are many alternatives for a school to become a sustainable one, ranging from consuming less energy, water, materials and producing less waste to offering possibilities for its students to make changes within their school, learn how they can transform their community, and to make real decisions that are relevant to their lives. Thus pupils can learn about sustainability both in the classroom and from their own hands-on experience. This makes sustainable schools more efficient and healthier environments in which to learn.
From theory to practice
As mentioned previously, many countries have already started to align to the European prescriptions regarding education for sustainable development, and some even went further to defining and setting goals for creating sustainable schools. For instance, the UK’s Department for Education, in its vision to make all schools sustainable by 2020 has developed a National Framework for Sustainable Schools, which comprises three interlocking parts:
· A commitment to care: Schools are already caring places, but a sustainable school extends this commitment into new areas. It cares about the energy and water it consumes, the waste it produces, the food it serves, the traffic it attracts, and the difficulties faced by people living in its community and in other parts of the world.
· An integrated approach: A sustainable school takes an integrated approach to its improvement. It explores sustainable development through its teaching provision and learning (curriculum); in its values and ways of working (campus); and in its engagement of local people and partners (community).
· A selection of “doorways” or sustainability themes: entry points, or places where schools can establish or develop their sustainability practices. Each of the doorways draws its inspiration from a range of national priorities around sustainable development.
These “doorway” themes are particularly interesting because they cover all aspects of school life and also the connections with the surrounding environment and community. A brief description of the themes, as well as a list of good practice examples from various schools are given below:
Food and drink
Schools should be: “model suppliers of healthy, local and sustainable food and drink, showing strong commitments to the environment, social responsibility and animal welfare in their food and drink provision, and maximising their use of local suppliers.”
Eating locally grown food contributes to the fight against climate change by minimizing the route travelled by food and the associated transport footprint. Also, it benefits local economy - making farmers who are able to sell food locally receive the full retail value of their produce.
· Buy locally produced food, especially fresh produce from farmers and, if possible, organic, to teach children not only about the importance of where the food comes from, but also about quality and healthy eating habits;
· Start a school allotment - it offers great benefits by providing children with a connection to their food source and also by introducing a green curriculum;
· Link up with farmers markets and sell the school produce there, giving the possibility to explore the economics of food production;
· Commit to Fairtrade products to raise awareness about the ethics of food production;
· Install water dispensers throughout the school at the detriment of fizzy drinks and chocolate machines. Thus pupils have the chance to fill their bottles during the day and drink water during lessons as well.
Energy and Water
Schools should be “models of energy efficiency, renewable energy and water conservation, showcasing opportunities such as wind, solar and biomass energy, insulation, rainwater harvesting and grey water recycling to everyone who uses the school.”
In sustainable schools students can address energy conservation issues, investigate renewable energy alternatives and explore ways to reduce water consumption. Through school operational changes, sustainable schools can save money on energy and water bills while maintaining a comfortable working environment and gaining significant educational, social and environmental benefits as well.
Energy-related best practice:
· Monitor energy bills on a regular basis;
· Carefully monitor heating to ensure the temperature is evenly distributed throughout the buildings. Minimize energy waste by avoiding, for example, having the heating on and the windows open;
· Install low energy measures in the school e.g. low energy light bulbs;
· Carry out an awareness raising campaign to reduce energy (e.g. switch off lights and computers when not in use);
· Stick “turn it off” signs above all the light switches throughout school and conduct a campaign with the staff to ensure that lights are switched off when pupils leave the room;
· Consider installing renewable energy measures (e.g. solar panel, wind turbine).
Water-related best practice:
· Monitor water bills on a regular basis;
· Install water hippos in the school toilets to save water;
· Carry out regular water audits to see if there are any taps dripping or need fixing;
· Install new calorifiers to control the heat of the water and put valve adjusters on the water supply so that water is not wasted;
· Carry out an awareness raising campaign to reduce water consumption (e.g. switching off taps when not in use);
· Investigate ways to redirect rainwater such as installing rainwater tanks.
Travel and traffic
Schools should be “models of sustainable travel, where vehicles are used only when absolutely necessary and where there are exemplary facilities for healthier, less polluting or less dangerous modes of transport.”
The sustainable school should play an active role in encouraging the pupils and staff to adopt greener travel options, thus reducing the number of cars on the roads and the associated pollution.
· Carry out a survey to identify how children travel to school;
· Ask parents, pupils and teachers to consider making the journey to and from school on foot and its many related benefits: increased physical activity, less urban congestion and air pollution;
· Improve road safety awareness of pupils;
· Encourage cycling by providing cycle shelters, lockers and shower facilities;
· Encourage the use of public transport. Circulate the bus timetables and provide covered waiting areas for pupils and parents;
· Encourage staff and parents to take up car share arrangements when coming to school;
· Develop a school travel plan (produced in cooperation with the Local Authority).
Purchasing and waste
Schools should be “models of waste minimisation and sustainable procurement, using goods and services of high environmental and ethical standards from local sources where practicable, and increasing value for money by reducing, reusing, repairing and recycling as much as possible.”
Sustainable schools must ensure that students and the rest of the school community have available a variety of ways for waste minimization. This includes purchasing policies, reusing opportunities, recycling strategies, canteen policies and litter.
· Minimise waste by photocopying using the double-sided option, using scrap paper for notes and rough working;
· Use “rubbish” such as yoghurt pots and egg boxes for arts and crafts projects;
· Benefit from the vast amount of free refurbished materials and equipment that social enterprises now offer to keep products out of landfills;
· Donate chairs and other furniture, as well as old computers and monitors (for example to help schools in Africa);
· Set up an internal recycling system. Place special bins or even cardboard boxes around the schools to collect paper and other recyclables;
· Appoint recycling monitors to empty the classroom recycling bins on a regular basis;
· Monitor rubbish bins to ensure all waste that can be recycled is being recycled;
· Weigh the rubbish being thrown away and that being recycled. Carry out a waste audit annually to monitor the school’s performance.
Buildings and grounds
Schools should “manage and, where possible, design their buildings in ways that visibly demonstrate sustainable development to everyone who uses the school. Through their grounds, we would like schools to bring pupils closer to the natural world, capture their imaginations in outdoor play, and help them learn about sustainable living.”
Every school is different when it comes to the facilities it has inherited. For schools residing in old buildings it will be significantly harder, but not impossible, to adopt sustainable practices. As new, modern solutions become available, sustainable schools will need to adapt.
· All new building projects should contain energy efficiency features, such as higher degree of insulation, double-glazing and efficient boilers. Where conditions permit it, their design should also reflect sustainable practices, like for instance a green roof;
· Grow vegetables or herbs on the school grounds and plant flowers to brighten the area;
· Start a composter or wormery to dispose of all organic scraps;
· Make “recycled” flowers out of old cans or plastic bottles;
· Plant trees to maintain the green environment and to reduce the carbon footprint;
· Leave a part of the school grounds uncultivated, allowing the grass to grow and providing a natural habitat to promote wildlife.
Inclusion and participation
Schools should be “models of social inclusion, enabling all pupils to participate fully in school life while instilling a long-lasting respect for human rights, freedoms, cultures and creative expression.”
The social dimension of sustainability is every bit as important as the environmental one. Sustainable schools have to foster an inclusive atmosphere, where pupils are involved in making decisions and taught about taking responsibility for their actions.
· Carry out projects where everyone can participate and bring a contribution. Ensure the project is sustainable - successful projects will have a long-lasting effect;
· Develop an action plan in consultation with all key groups. Set some (achievable) targets and constantly monitor and evaluate the progress;
· Keep everyone informed (students, staff, parents, governors, wider community, etc.) of progress. Start a notice board, put articles in school newsletters, report back to school council, take assemblies, etc. It may even be possible to invite the local press to a special project e.g. opening a new garden area;
· Use school councils - give young people a platform to express views outside the school;
· Run poster competitions to help raise awareness. The winning posters could be displayed in local shops, libraries, thus involving the whole community;
· Link your events with special calendar dates for a greater impact;
· Invite guest speakers to assemblies;
· Involve parents as much as possible to ensure environmental actions being carried out at school are also being carried out at home;
· Exchange experiences. For example, inviting pupils over from other schools, including different profile ones, to attend classes or events is a very good way to interact.
Schools should be “models of corporate citizenship within their local areas, enriching their educational mission with activities that improve the environment and quality of life of local people.”
As an integrative part of the communities where they reside, sustainable schools must prove a commitment to actively contribute to their well-being by getting involved in community actions.
· Carry out litter picking in the school grounds or in surrounding areas on a regular basis;
· In spring or autumn, initiate a tree-planting campaign within the community;
· Decorate waste bins to make them more colourful. This may encourage more people to put their litter in the bin;
· Start a graffiti cleaning crew;
· Use school premises beyond school hours for adult education classes, sports teams and for local groups wanting a place to meet for their various leisure activities. This supports the idea of sustainability, particularly when several activities are happening at the same time, with heating and lighting being used to full capacity.
Schools should be “models of global citizenship, enriching their educational mission with activities that improve the lives of people living in other parts of the world.”
On a global scale sustainable schools must recognize their part as citizens of the planet and, as such, the impact they have on the other inhabitants, as well as the deriving responsibility.
· Calculate the school’s carbon footprint and take measures to reduce it;
· Set up an environment club and discuss environmental problems at different scales. Then find out how the club’s activity can help solve the identified problems;
· Organise trips to different locations to experience directly the flavour of life in other cultures and the impacts of human activities on the environment and society.
Having in mind that today’s pupils and students will be tomorrow’s decision makers, helping them engage with sustainability issues in a critical, creative and, as much as possible, hands-on manner results in greater ownership of the issues and a willingness to engage in active citizenship now and in the future. As concern for our planet grows, it is essential that we encourage our pupils to embrace the concept of sustainability as common practice. And learning in a sustainable school is a very valuable experience that will offer the first and most impactful step in achieving this.