Green Around the Gills? The State of Sustainable Schools Policy

This government pledged to be the ‘greenest government ever’ but does their lack of a coordinated approach mean that they are failing sustainable schools?    

Sustainability has been a hot topic for schools ever since the Labour government launched its sustainable schools framework back in 2006.

The framework set out the government’s aspirations for sustainable schools, encouraged schools to approach the theme of sustainability through eight distinct doorways and outlined broad targets that schools were encouraged to achieve by 2020.

It was widely publicised by the DCSF and, thanks to a raft of accompanying resources from both within the government and from a range of private providers, it did encourage schools to embrace education for sustainable development.

Ann Finlayson, CEO of SEEd (Sustainability and Environmental Education) explained: “In the five years that the initiative ran we started to see real movement towards sustainability. New people got excited about the initiative, sustainability became a mainstream issue, and entirely new teachers and schools started coming along.”

In 2008, an Ofsted report into schools and sustainability noted that progress was being made, especially in the primary sector, but that work in this area tended to be uncoordinated and that it was not an integral part of the curriculum.

The report recommended that the government should give a higher priority to sustainable schools, support this with funding for central and local initiatives, and ensure that the curriculum reflected the importance of learning about sustainability.

Yet in spite of this advice, when the new coalition government came to power, claiming to be the ‘greenest government ever’ they quickly scrapped the sustainable schools initiative and opted to let schools decide their own approach towards sustainability.

The decision prompted outrage from a sector that believed passionately in the importance of sustainable schools and over 1400 people including high-profile NGO’s and charities wrote to the Department for Education (DFE) asking them not to scrap this important work.

But despite their heartfelt pleas the DFE still opted not to support a centralised Sustainable Schools policy.

Lord Hill of Oareford, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools sent out this reply: “Sustainability is an important issue for schools but it should not be centrally driven.

“We believe that schools understand their responsibilities when it comes to sustainability and, for example, will act to ensure that their buildings are as energy efficient as possible. The greater autonomy that we are giving to schools will allow them to focus their budgets on achieving sustainability as they deem appropriate.”

The U-turn left school leaders, charities and NGO’s floundering, and many thought that it would mean the end for sustainable schools. But despite their fears, sustainability in schools has continued to thrive.

Mark Chappelhow Senior Officer at Eco Schools explains: “We still have a couple of hundred new schools signing up to the programme each month and we have more schools applying for the green flag now than we have had in the past.

“More and more people are genuinely aware of how important it is to educate young people about sustainability and they see how other schools are doing it well. The funding might have been cut but the appetite in schools is still there. “

The reason why schools are still keen to become more sustainable despite the lack of government support is unclear. Perhaps the movement had already gained enough momentum for school leaders to have become firmly committed to it, or perhaps schools had become aware of the benefits of incorporating education for sustainable development (ESD) into the curriculum and the life of the school.

Certainly, it’s well known that ESD raises standards and improves staff and pupil well being.

In 2009, an Ofsted report found that a focus on sustainability had a wide range of positive consequences and cited “more positive attitudes to learning, better behaviour and attendance, and improved standards and achievement” as a direct result of incorporating sustainability in the curriculum.

“We know ESD is motivational for children” said Ann Finlayson. “There are studies that show that it can improve teaching and learning but it’s also something that children want to learn. A survey by the Co-operative last year showed that 7-14 year olds wanted to learn literacy and numeracy first and foremost, and following that they want to learn about global issues. They would rather learn about the environment than traditional subjects like history, IT and art.

“It’s very clear that the appetite is there. But teachers struggle to know how to teach sustainability and how to find support.”

Giving appropriate support to schools is something that Ann Finlayson, as CEO of SEEd, has made it her mission to achieve.

She explained: “There are upwards of 500 organisations involved in offering schools help and support on sustainability at present. It’s too many. Teachers are overloaded and overwhelmed with information. They don’t know where to start to they put it in the ‘too hard’ basket.”

To this end, SEEd is currently collecting and preserving all of the resources created under the previous government and compiling a database of organisations working in the sector.

What’s more, the charity is working with  teaching unions, student unions, teachers, heads, NGOs and examining bodies to create a new sustainability curriculum that can help schools in the development of their ‘local school curriculum.’

“This is a fantastic time to pull together 25 years of work and make it accessible to mainstream schools and teachers,” said Ann Finlayson.

“We’re taking three decades of expertise in sustainability and matching it up with pioneer schools to create one new curriculum that can help schools in the future. The national curriculum review means that it’s the perfect time to do it.”

Whilst school leaders wait for the creation of sustainability curriculum they will have to find creative ways to incorporate sustainability into the life of their school and draw on a range of pre-existing resources if they’re to achieve the positive outcomes that ESD can offer.

Eco Schools’ Mark Chappelhow commented: “The lack of a centralised framework means that teachers need to be more creative in using sustainability across the curriculum and there are a host of fantastic resources available that allows them to do that.

“The new government has not set sustainability as much of a priority but it’s really kick started the sector and lots of local authorities and other organisations are doing fantastic work in driving schools forward.”

It seems that this government might not be the ‘greenest government ever’ as far as schools are concerned, but school leaders are firmly committed to sustainability and no lack of government support will stop them from steering their students towards a greener future.


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