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Green means go!

Steve Wright rounds up some of the most impressive green initiatives from across the UK independent schools landscape

Posted by Hannah Vickers | March 02, 2017 | Sustainability

With the perfect mix of resources, expertise and, crucially, hundreds of enquiring young minds eager to help safeguard the future of their planet, it should come as no surprise that the UK’s independent schools are at the vanguard of the green revolution. From Switch-Off Fortnights to biomass boilers, community orchards to green festivals, many independent schools are now leading the green and sustainable agenda – and enriching their learning and community life at the same time. 

Green issues are certainly near the top of the agenda at Hazlegrove Preparatory School in Somerset, whose forthcoming EarthWyz Festival will look at a wide variety of topics including conservation, environmental management, waste, food and energy. “It will undoubtedly be an exciting and thought-provoking week as we consider how we can meet the needs of today’s society without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” reflected Headmaster Richard Fenwick MA.

The March festival is jam-packed with events, talks, action plans, trips and visits. “EarthWyz will filter into the curriculum for the week and will be absorbed into all academic lessons from maths to art, science to food technology. We hope that the Festival will be the catalyst to changing the way our community thinks and acts, and will have a lasting and sustained impact on our community,” said Richard.

Those behavioural changes are already well underway. Last term Hazlegrove launched its own Eco Council, a team of 19 children from Years 3 to 8 who run regular patrols looking for ways to improve on energy efficiency, recycling, litter and waste management. On one such patrol, the children used a thermal-imaging camera to see and compare the energy efficiency of various school buildings. “Everyone at Hazlegrove knows that the Festival is not just a week of activities: our Eco Council have been challenging us as a community to live as sustainably as possible for months now, and it has been thrilling to see the changes already,” added Head of Geography Andrew Farquhar MA.

Elsewhere, Buckswood School’s long-term focus on innovation suits the school’s green agenda well. “Buckswood prides itself on innovation,” said Marketing and Development Manager Vicki Ireland. “We were the first school in the South East to embrace internationalism, with 50% of our students coming from over 46 different countries; first to link our Football Academy with a Premier League team; first to offer both A-levels and the IB programme, and many more. It is natural for us to think about our sustainability and about the desire to limit our carbon footprint.” 

Buckswood’s green initiatives to date have included a programme of tree planting, both to limit the noise around the school and to offset carbon usage, a focus on timber-framed new buildings, construction of two large biomass boilers and solar panels on many buildings including the sports hall and boarding residences.

Most recently, the school took the plunge and made its own water treatment plant. “This system has created a fantastic site for all sorts of wildlife including some rare species of newts and birds,” explained Vicki. “It’s also a great educational resource: many classes are spent investigating the bio-diversity the plant has generated. The overflow from the septic tank system is treated by this plant: the water is then fed into a reed-bed system where it is further ‘polished’ before discharging into a natural water course. This reed-bed system has produced its own ecology, sustaining a variety of aquatic wildlife.”

An ongoing commitment to environmental issues, meanwhile, has led to St Mary’s School, Colchester, being re-selected as one of only five schools across England to hold the Green Flag Eco-Schools Ambassador role for 2016–2018 – the third successive period for which St Mary’s will hold the role.

Each year, the international sustainability awards programme ‘Eco-Schools’ chooses exceptional schools from across the country to represent the programme – and, in turn, to encourage new schools on board. Eco-Schools Ambassadors are expected to go the extra mile to make sustainability key to the school’s culture; to show inspirational leadership and to help other schools to adopt the Eco-Schools framework.

Back in November, meanwhile, members of St Mary’s Eco Team offered tips on making schools more eco-friendly as part of Colchester Borough Council’s Building Resilient Communities conference. Four pupils aged 14-16 joined the school’s Eco-Coordinator, Sarah Wilding, to offer practical advice on embedding environmental topics into the curriculum. The event coincided with St Mary’s annual Eco Week, which involved all students in projects and activities designed to promote environmental awareness. During the week, for example, Year 7 students conducted a biodiversity study of the school grounds with the help of Essex Wildlife Trust.

“I can honestly say that our Eco Schools status is utterly integral to the school, reflected in everything from the annual School Development Plan through to curriculum planning,” said Sarah. “Our gardening skills, for example, have been recognised in the local community in Colchester in Bloom, at the local agricultural show and at the Royal Horticultural Society’s school gardening competition. 

“Being an Eco School has given us an amazing opportunity to share good practice and embed the themes within our curriculum,” continued Sarah. “For example, the Maths department has looked at food miles and graphed their results, and questioned staff and family members on recycling habits, using the results for their Statistics coursework.”

Wiltshire’s Dauntsey’s School is also very conscious of its own green responsibilities. “Set in the beautiful Wiltshire countryside, and fortunate to count Friends of the Earth co-founder Richard Sandbrook as an old Dauntseian, respecting our environment has long been a consideration for us,” explained Headmaster Mark Lascelles. “But this mindset shifted a gear in 2008 when pupils created a society called The Big Green Thing (BGT), and so began a journey in understanding the economic and environmental benefits of ‘green’ strategies. 

“The BGT persuaded the school to invest in 10 thermal solar panels to heat the swimming pool showers. It was the start of a move towards renewable energy that has seen photovoltaic panels installed on various major school buildings. During daylight hours, when energy needs peak, these generate a maximum 138 kilowatts, offsetting our electrical consumption.” 

“Eight years ago, two Fourth Form pupils made an impassioned case for integrating eco-friendly values into the fabric of the school,” said Mark. “The last slide of their presentation showed a building with its lowest storey sunk into the ground, a living roof and a ground source heat pump providing renewable energy. Those pupils may have moved on, but their vision has now been realised in our new Pavilion. Heat and hot water are provided by a ground source heat pump that extracts heat energy from the ground via a series of 100-metre bore holes, while the sedum roof ensures that the building blends into the landscape.”

“More recently, we have appointed a Green Governor to ensure that the pupils’ voice on environmental issues is heard loud and clear and that their concerns are reflected in the school’s policies. The school’s awareness of its impact on the environment has been driven in large part by pupil power,” concluded Mark.

Further east, Bedford Girls’ School opened its new sports facility, Cople Playing Fields, last autumn. 

The site, which features six full-size lacrosse pitches and a modern pavilion, also provided the opportunity to create a dedicated wildlife conservation area on the site. The proposed conservation area measured approximately 4.5 acres and broadly comprised a small copse, finger lake and meadow. The intention was to retain the lake and vegetation, providing the perfect location for a number of beehives as well as a community orchard. 

Bedford Girls’ School pupils were involved from the start, helping to measure the population of the Greater Crested Newt, a protected species known to be prevalent at the site. To create the community orchard, meanwhile, over 50 fruit trees were planted, with plans for the fruits to feature as ingredients in a range of dishes at the school.

Also on the site, an application to the Woodland Trust for a range of saplings, as part of the latter’s Free Trees for Schools scheme, saw BGS receiving over 400 trees to plant at Cople Fields. The pack included trees and hedgerow species such as silver birch, common oak, rowan, hazel, hawthorn and blackthorn. Junior school and senior school members of the student-led Eco Council helped with the planting. 

Meanwhile, teachers at The Downs School in Wraxall near Bristol were seen scurrying back to their classrooms to ensure that the lights were out before they fell foul of young eco-warriors with spreadsheets. The exercise was part of a Switch-Off Fortnight campaign dreamed up by the school’s Eco Committee. Headmaster Marcus Gunn said: “It was quite fun – and a great success. We were able to demonstrate to the children that they had saved £500 just by turning off the lights.”

A similar crackdown is planned this year on waste. The school has a ‘nothing to landfill’ policy and food waste is turned into compost, which is used in the grounds and in the eco greenhouse that children have made from plastic bottles. There have also been initiatives to save water and to monitor the savings from the 250 square metres of solar panels on the sports hall roof. Over the past few years, meanwhile, pupils have planted 10,000 daffodils and tulips across the school’s 60-acre grounds (every child plants ten plants each year).

Marcus is keen that his pupils appreciate their good fortune in being educated in such surroundings, as he said: “We live in a lovely place within a beautiful estate and it is our responsibility to make sure that people in 100 years’ time can enjoy what we enjoy today.” 


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