Planting the seeds of sustainability

Living responsibly is embedded in the lessons and daily life of independent schools, says Simon Fry

Preparing the adults of tomorrow for the world after education means informing them of their green responsibilities. Pupils taught about the preciousness of Planet Earth will seek to minimise their impact on the environment, but these global citizens will also know that such action starts at a local level.

The strong environmental ethos at Withington Girls’ School, Manchester has seen it retain its Green Flag status since June 2010, reflecting the school’s considerable efforts to reduce energy use through improved insulation, low-energy lighting and equipment, efficient boilers and enhanced natural ventilation and daylight levels.

The school’s aspirations for sustainability were at the forefront of a recent development to provide an expanded and self-contained junior department and new central hub space. The school’s architect, Levitt Bernstein, firstly exploited natural passive strategies such as the building’s orientation, form and areas of glazing to maximise opportunities for natural light, heat and ventilation. Most of the building is naturally ventilated, with air brought into each classroom through the façade – and warmed if necessary – and then exhausted through chimneys and roof lights.

The materials forming the building envelope were selected to reduce heat loss. The primary structure for the building is a concrete frame left exposed throughout the building interior, making use of this heavyweight ‘thermal mass’ to moderate internal temperatures: the concrete absorbs heat, thereby warming the space in winter and cooling it in summer.

The junior school’s wildflower roof provides myriad benefits: it acts as a ‘blanket’ to further improve the internal thermal environment; it contains a wide range of wildflower species and supports local biodiversity; it reduces the pressure on drainage and finally it provides an attractive focal point for pupils and staff. The wildflower mix was selected for its diversity, but the flowers can grow up to 60cm in height and are visible above the parapet.

Berkshire’s Hurst Lodge School has for many years been at the forefront of sustainability education, working as a community to tread lightly on the Earth. “Pupils from ages two and a half to 16 have weekly timetabled lessons in the woods and our allotment, learning about the wild world, horticulture and poultry husbandry, gaining an understanding of the ecosystem around them, where their food comes from and how it can be grown and cared for,” says principal Victoria Smit. “At the same time pupils are also gaining life skills such as leadership and team-working.”

A vital aspect of the school’s ethos is making sustainability a central thread within school life, with lessons in core academic subjects incorporating the outdoors. “Additionally, we have registered ourselves for national projects, such as the RHS-co-ordinated Rocket Science seed-planting programme,” says Victoria. “This will be run by our science department in conjunction with the director of outdoor learning. The afterschool eco club, open to all ages, engages in a range of diverse activities, from speaking with the contractors who provide school meals to creating Christmas gifts for commercial sale by business studies pupils. Across the key stages, pupils are involved in the eco committee. We are currently pursuing the Woodlands Trust ‘Green Trees Schools’ Gold Award and plan to have the necessary activities completed by this summer to achieve the platinum standard.”

‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ has also been adopted as a school theme. Reducing electricity is under review, with pupils comparing the consumption figures from last year with those for this year as a basis from which to move forwards. Many articles are reused, such as tin cans as plant pots and juice cartons as butterfly hibernacula. Recycling materials used at school occurs in many areas and parents are invited to send in old ink cartridges and other recyclable items.

The school has also developed a vocational qualification for key stages three-five in conjunction with the Forest School Learning Initiative. This is externally validated by the Open College Network and offers certification equivalent to GCSE and beyond.

At Greenbank Preparatory School, environmental education and sustainability are integral to every aspect of life, resulting in a prestigious Green Flag award in 2014 and the Green School of the Year 2014-15 title from the ISA. The pupil-led eco council drives action and ensures whole-school participation, their eco code being adopted by all members of the school community.

Greenbank’s eco garden

Green initiatives focus initially on energy and water saving, with pupils monitoring usage and sticking smiley/sad faces anywhere around school – a green certificate is presented to the most eco-friendly area each week. Recent building projects were constructed with sustainability in mind and feature elements such as extra cladding, light sensors and timers and radiator thermostats. Temperature tracking ensures heating can be regulated across school rooms. In addition, Greenbank is moving towards a paperless environment, with most information being sent out electronically. Food waste is monitored and classes are rewarded for having the smallest waste bucket.

Recycling is evident all around the school, with each classroom having paper bins and kitchen waste being used for compost. Provision is also made for the recycling of batteries, toner cartridges, shoes, phones and clothing. Cloakrooms have hand driers rather than paper towels and wherever possible children are encouraged to walk or cycle – covered bicycle racks are provided and a ‘walking bus’ is used for local journeys.

One of Greenbank’s proudest achievements is the development of its eco garden, which provides a habitat for wildlife and enables children to experience biodiversity first hand. Produce grown is used in school lunches, the bird hide/nesting box webcam lets pupils observe at close quarters and EYFS pupils have a weekly outdoor explorers session.

Shebbear College is committed to sustainability in concept and practice in many forms. Their catering policy favours locally sourced produce; comprehensive energy and waste management systems are in place – as is an annual tree-planting programme – and pupils attend training events on sustainability and environmental matters. The school runs a fair trade shop and participates in the Eco School and World Action in Methodist Schools programmes.

The college’s sustainability suite and biomass plants provide a focal point to ensure being sustainable is ingrained in the education it provides. This inspires questions in the minds of the whole community about the numerous pressures faced by Planet Earth.

The college’s renewable energy strategy is one of the most measurable ways in which it is making strong efforts to become more sustainable. Its two biomass plants provide heat and water to its main buildings, replacing 25 percent of energy produced by fossil fuels, reducing significantly the heating oil used onsite and running on wood chip sourced from local sustainable supplies. The college’s 50kw solar array feeds into its electricity usage and provides around 5 percent of the electricity consumed.

Stowe, Eton, Westminster, Benenden and 28 Oxford University colleges are among the many independent schools and educational establishments benefitting from EcoPure Waters’ mains water filtration systems. EcoPure Waters MD Paul Proctor says: “By installing a mains water filtration system, which filters and chills water on demand, operators eliminate the need to use environmentally damaging bottled water. The still or sparkling water is served in glass bottles which are reused after ware-washing over and over again. These multi-use glass bottles have several environmental benefits over bought-in water in single-use bottles; they eliminate the need to manufacture a new bottle each time, have a lower carbon footprint over their lifetime, remove the need for waste and recycling, have zero landfill potential and reduce food miles.”

South Wales-based international sixth-form college UWC Atlantic College’s mission statement is to make “education a force to unite people, nations and culture for peace and a sustainable future” and this is incorporated into every level of its daily life. “Students joining our environmental faculty work on projects like cultivating our on-campus kitchen garden, running our farm and conserving the heritage coastline the college calls home,” explains principal John Walmsley. “Activities include alternative technology projects, recycling schemes, species monitoring, marine diving and engaging in maritime environmental-awareness campaigns. To ensure the founding mission is constantly at the top of the agenda, we created a sustainability council and a sustainability charter. Our February 2016 sustainability conference will focus on climate change and green energy.”

Pupils with a clear understanding of where their food comes from and of the need to not waste water and energy will become environmentally-aware adults who pass on such considerations to their children. The UK’s independent schools can be commended for instilling such understanding both theoretically and practically. Outdoor lessons and immersion in nature ensure children will live out the true meaning of the historic quote: “Tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I learn.”

As future custodians of the Earth, no lesson is more important.