Martin Whittaker looks at the Schumacher approach to sustainable schools.
Everybody mucks in together on a residential course at Schumacher College, helping to prepare the evening meal, making tea and coffee and keeping the place tidy. "I cleaned the loos this morning," says one teacher. There is a purpose to this communal living. Not only does it aim to bond together those on the course, it also brings home its central message - that we all have a responsibility to each other. And, as Kermit the frog once said: "It's not easy being green."
The Roots of Learning is a series of five-day courses designed to help teachers explore ecological issues, catch up with the latest resources, and exchange ideas on education for sustainable development. They are held in the most beautiful of settings. Schumacher College, an international centre for ecological studies, is in a big old house on the Dartington Estate, amid the rolling countryside near Totnes in south Devon.
The latest course, Designing a Sustainable School Environment, attracted a broad range of participants, including teachers, those in teacher training, environmentalists working with schools, a school chef and a caretaker.
The first day was spent examining how school buildings can be made more ecologically sustainable and used as a learning resource. As a case study, participants visited nearby Park School, a small independent primary, and conducted an "ecological audit", looking at how buildings could be adapted to save energy.
On the day The TES joined in, Peter Harper, head of research and innovation at the Centre for Alternative Technology in mid-Wales, talked engagingly about the important role schools play in promoting sustainable development.
"We are trying to bring up kids who are aware of these problems," he said.
"These may be the leaders, the opinion formers of tomorrow."
He gave participants a guide to developing a sustainable environment in their school, stressing the importance of winning support from heads, governors and children, and how to measure energy saving to use as data in lessons and to show that green can mean cost-effective. It is often the less exciting eco-friendly measures that work, including water-efficient toilets, insulation, and obtaining electricity from a green supplier.
Schools need to think very carefully about introducing higher-profile measures, such as reed beds, turf roofs or wind turbines which can be expensive.
Often the talk opened out into discussion as his audience added their own experiences, from public health issues raised by composting to the relative merits of paper towels versus automatic hand-dryers in toilets.
One group worked on an audit game to measure use of energy, water and food; another looked at designing a real-time display station to monitor energy inputs and outputs. A third explored ecological footprinting, used to determine the sustainability of communities - a useful online resource for schools that estimates the total area of land and water needed to support the consumption and waste levels of a given population. A land area of 7.8 hectares is needed to support the lifestyle of the average Canadian, compared to 0.8 hectares in India.
One participant, Neil Mantell, is a biology teacher at the Blue School, a large comprehensive in Wells, Somerset. He is on a mission to turn the Blue School green, involving everything from recycling and composting to redesigning the classrooms and corridors. This is his third course. "One of the things Schumacher provided was an environment where I could just explore things with people who are maybe asking themselves the same questions. It has a way of attracting people from diverse backgrounds - people on the edge of education and people like me right in the middle."
Peter Bloomfield runs geography teacher training at the University of Hertfordshire, and teaches an option on education for sustainability in the third year of the degree. "This should be taught in year one to everybody.
There's so much up-to-date material here I can use. There's a range of ideas from other people. It's also good to talk to experts in their field."
He stresses that education for sustainability cuts across a range of subjects. "We were talking about designing a game about energy in school which involves maths, teamwork and discussion. It's a realistic game which could in the end reduce the school's bills. The children are actively involved and it's a fun way of learning. And we're meeting national curriculum aims."
Further courses are Reconnecting with Nature (October 26-31) and Food In Schools (April 12-17 2004). Tel: 01803 865934. Human Scale Education, an educational charity which helped set up the courses, is also running a seminar in Bristol on Creating an Environmentally Sustainable School (September 24). Tel:01275 332516