Building a legacy

Charley Rogers asks independent schools about the sustainable and environment-focused facilities that are improving their green credentials

“Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy and habitable by all species,” – Sir David Attenborough.

Two years ago, in May 2019, the Guardian announced it was changing its house style from using the phrase ‘climate change’ to ‘climate crisis’ to reflect the seriousness of environmental damage.

Editor-in-chief Katherine Viner says: “The phrase ‘climate change’ sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity. Increasingly, climate scientists and organisations from the UN to the Met Office are changing their terminology, and using stronger language to describe the situation we’re in.”

This change in terminology reflected an increasing awareness across the UK – and the world – of the damage being inflicted on the environment. Many organisations rose to the occasion, not least independent schools.

In fact, many schools have been implementing sustainability measures throughout their estates for much longer. For instance, UWC (United World College) Atlantic in South Wales has been using biomass heating since 2003. The biomass boilers run on woodchips and waste timber harvested from sustainable woodlands within a two-kilometre radius of the college’s home at St Donat’s Castle.

The school has also recently constructed a series of environmentally friendly student housing. Ewan Meredith, research, content and stewardship coordinator at the school, says: “Our commitment to sustainability is a central tenet of our ethos. This principle is a foundational element in the design of these new accommodation buildings, which will conform to high environmental standards, and are designed using thoughtful modern materials.

“Insulation and energy-saving methods will have a significant impact on the environmental footprint of these buildings, and will also reduce the running costs of the building. The houses are designed to withstand at least 40 years of robust student life, so this is an investment in the future of our campus, as well as the future of our students.”

A Holme Grange School pupil harvesting from the polytunnel


Materially speaking

A webinar from renewable solutions provider Stora Enso, ‘Why it’s time to build more wooden schools’, recently reflected on the use of one of the oldest renewable materials to construct the education spaces of the future.

Fred Mills, co-founder of construction video channel The B1M, explained that by using timber sourced from sustainably managed forests, and harvesting older trees, environmental impact can be reduced.

He says: “Unlike concrete and steel, which rely on finite resources and which actually harm the planet in quite an extreme way, timber is a building material that grows back.” Another aspect to consider, says Mills, is that “as trees get older and more mature, they produce less oxygen and absorb less carbon dioxide, so harvesting an older tree and replacing it with younger trees in a sustainably managed forest can be better for the environment overall.”

But it’s not only building materials that contribute to the sustainability of estates. Design and maintenance also play into how environmentally friendly schools are, as well as alternative energy sources.

Holme Grange School, for instance, has employed over 447 solar panels across two of its buildings, to add to their net-zero status.

Similarly, in October 2020, The King’s School in Macclesfield completed a £60m redevelopment project, including 21,000m2 of new academic building, incorporating 350 rooms, along with a sports centre, and 75 acres of sporting and outdoor facilities. The project, supported by Pick Everard and VINCI Construction UK, boasts a BREEAM ‘very good’ rating, and includes eco-features such as sustainable drainage systems, bat and swift boxes, beehives and outdoor classrooms.

Here, we hear from three independent schools on the sustainable facilities that are improving their green credentials.

Pupils getting stuck in at the Earth Centre at Kingsley School


Kingsley School, Bideford

In 2019, Kingsley School, situated in the UNESCO biosphere in North Devon, launched the Earth Centre within its grounds to “enable and inspire positive impact on our environment and society”.

Lucy Goaman, marketing director at Kingsley School, explains: “In response to the challenges of our time, the Earth Centre puts the natural world and environmental sustainability at the core of education. Educational immersion in the Earth Centre raises ecological awareness, asks the right questions, and develops the future leaders and practitioners that we need for the next 100 years to be a success for humankind.”

The Earth Centre focuses on ‘ecological literacy’, as well as more traditional numeracy and literacy skills. For pupils, this means:

● Understanding ecology
● Being emotionally connected to ecological principles
● Thinking, talking, planning and writing with ecological consideration
● Applying principles of biomimicry
● Acting within ecological boundaries
● Thriving ecologically and leading fulfilled lives as part of the natural world.

The centre’s Ecology Zone sees students manage soils, grow vegetables and store carbon. The vegetables grown are used to supply the school kitchen and the Kingsley Farmers Market.

The centre has also just added two wild beehives, which are “purely for the bees, not for harvesting honey,” explains Goaman.

“It is a different approach, one that suits the bees and where evolution is determined by the needs of bees and nature, not a beekeeper.” The idea is that after learning at The Earth Centre, says Goaman, pupils will be able to point to real-world projects they have completed, as well as grades earned.

Pupils planting at Holme Grange School


Holme Grange School, Berkshire

Holme Grange School is also developing its physical estate, and already boasts two net-zero buildings, The Grange and The Hive, developed between 2016 and 2018. Both buildings benefit from solar panels – The Grange has 297 and The Hive has 150 – and the latter houses the school’s reception. A third building on campus, Eaton Grange, home to classes for the school’s 11–16-year-olds, is also solar-powered, boasting 95 panels on its roof.

Charlie Plumpton, Holme Grange’s head of estates, explains the school’s upcoming plans for LED lighting: “We’re doing a planned maintenance of our lighting systems throughout the older part of the school,” he said, “including the main school, the Scott wing, and the John Graves wing, where we are replacing all lighting with LED alternatives. This will mean we use less power for classroom and corridor lights.”

According to the United Nations Association of the UK, education disruption due to Covid-19 will have implications on six of the sustainable development goals, including SDG 13 – climate action

Holme Grange has termly sustainability development goals (SDGs), and is addressing SDG 13 (climate action) as part of the autumn term 2021/22. The school uses the United Nations’ SDGs as a ‘focal point’ for each term, and teachers link to the goals through lessons.

The aim, says Catherine Walsh, head of communications, administration and strategy at Holme Grange, is to “embed the SDGs and make them a part of the school’s ethos”.

The school’s management team also has further climate-related goals for the upcoming academic year, including designing and building ‘living walls’ around the school, which will feature edible elements.

Prince’s Gardens Preparatory School in London


Prince’s Gardens Preparatory School, London

Prince’s Gardens Preparatory School, which opened in September 2020, aims to become the UK’s first fully biophilic school.

The school claims to offer “a healthy, nature-filled, oxygenating environment that inspires its inhabitants to have a love and respect for the outside world”, and even plants a tree for every new pupil that enrols. Children can either take the tree home with them when they leave year 6, or donate it to a local community project.

Headmistress Alison Melrose said: “Studies have shown that biophilic environments improve academic attainment as well as reducing sickness absences – so it becomes an even more compelling reason to jump into nature.

“The biophilic school project was born out of a desire to create a truly inspirational, healthy and beautiful school environment.

“The project has since developed into one where the natural world has been further woven into the curriculum and we’re developing a pilot scheme with Imperial College London’s scientists, where academic research can add further insights into the project as well as encouraging children to create and maintain a garden. We also aim to extend this scheme with local state primary schools.”

Over the next five years, Prince’s Gardens Preparatory School plans to develop its sustainability agenda even further, including seeking ways to extend the scheme beyond the school walls with the help of its ‘sustainability champion’, and exploring partnership activities for families in areas such as green energy, and ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ initiatives.

You might also like: How are independent schools staying green?

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