Sustainability: young people have the power, and they are holding schools to account

It is no longer enough for schools to attempt to be more sustainable, says Rose Hardy, headmistress at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls

Environmental education and setting goals around how we can become more sustainable as a community has been a hot topic in schools for a number of years now and that scrutiny and focus is only growing in significance today. From sixth form students, right down to younger pre-prep age children, when it comes to looking after our planet and creating change in the way that we do things, young people are very much leading the way.

There is a growing and palpable sense of responsibility and personal ownership amongst students today, not only for protecting the world we live in but also for the local community. If the past year has taught young people anything, it is the power of philanthropy and the importance of being able to ‘give back’, not simply in times of hardship but just because it is the right thing to do.

Young people’s priorities right now centre around how they can change the future for the better and a huge part of that is about assessing how we can make improvements to the way we live day to day. For schools, it is no longer enough simply to ‘fly the green flag’, attempt to be more sustainable, or organise ad-hoc events and green initiatives to raise awareness. Students want tangible changes that they can physically see, and they are prepared to roll up their sleeves and make it happen.

The message has changed

Gone are the days where children listened and learned passively about the environment from inside the classroom. Sustainability has become part of the bricks and mortar of a school, one that our students live and breathe and actively participate in

It can be quite astonishing to witness just how passionate some students are about creating change and how far they are prepared to go to make things happen. These traits are admirable and nurturing students to embrace that self-driven motivation is something schools are looking to harness from an academic perspective too.

Students want tangible changes that they can physically see, and they are prepared to roll up their sleeves and make it happen

The vegan revolution is one such movement that has swept our younger generations over the last couple of years, making them question the impact our food consumption has over wider sustainability issues. This message has also changed over the years, the veer towards a plant-based diet is no longer just about a love for animals, or about leading a healthier lifestyle, it is much deeper than that.

Despite what some people have suggested, it is quite clear that veganism is not a fad, it is not a trend, plant-based living is very much the future, and it is here to stay. Interestingly, we have noticed a real ‘parent divide’ around the topic of veganism specifically. Some are immediately rather sceptical of the concept and believe it is simply a trend that will fade away. Others are extremely pro plant-based living and are supporting their children at home by exploring the issues behind it, experimenting with dinner menus, recipes and the like.

Action not words

Schools need constantly to up their game when it comes to supporting young people in their quest to create a better, more sustainable future, whatever that might look like. From providing the facilities for school allotments and vegetable gardens where students can help to cultivate and grow produce, to increasing the variety of vegan options in the school dining hall or looking at new ways the school can support recycling in the local area, students are questioning schools on their policies and they want positive actions, not promising words.

Schools should expect to have to justify their approaches and their actions to students. ‘Why are we using plastic packaging here?’, ‘Is our produce sourced locally?’, ‘Is this fair trade?’ Why is there only one vegan option in the lunch hall today?’ Schools should also expect young people to want to get involved in policies, to actively campaign for change and to ask their school to stand up and be counted on important issues.

Schools are, of course, taking huge steps in the right direction when it comes to climate change and accountability today, but there is still much to do, and we should only expect its significance to grow over the coming years.

What is becoming obvious is that we need to walk the walk every day. This is all about cultivating a positive and progressive school culture for the future. Becoming more sustainable also enhances the overall learning and development opportunity for schools because active participation in environmental policies and campaigns also provides unique learning opportunities for students, helping to nurture productivity, problem-solving and critical analytical skills.

Importantly, goals centred around climate change also bring together the whole school community, engaging every individual in an evolving culture of continuous learning and development.

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