Tigger just needs some direction

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
While schools are signing up enthusiastically to the green agenda, fewer than 100 can actually call themselves models of sustainable education

While schools are signing up enthusiastically to the green agenda, fewer than 100 can actually call themselves models of sustainable education. That was one of the conclusions of a TES debate sponsored by Generation Green, and attended by teachers, academics, civil servants and leaders of voluntary organisations.

Ann Finlayson, commissioner for education at the Sustainable Development Commission, said schools had reached the "Tigger" stage in their progress towards a greener future. "There is lots of enthusiasm and lots of action, but it is a bit bouncy in places and it isn't everywhere," she said.

The Government has outlined a national framework to encourage all schools to become models of sustainability by 2020. It identifies eight "doorways" for schools to pass through, including energy-saving, recycling, healthy eating and good citizenship.

Professor Bill Scott, director of the centre for education and environment research at Bath University, estimated that only between 50 and 100 schools had really good practice.

"Across most of the system there are some slow awakenings of the understanding that it isn't just about teaching, it isn't just about school organisation and what the community does, but about the integration of all these," he said.

Most participants in the debate believed schools were making progress. Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that at a meeting three years ago only three out of 30 teachers knew what a walking bus was. Now, all 30 would know. There were very good examples of year groups taking a week out of the timetable to look at topics such as climate change, but probably not enough joined up thinking.

Around 10,000 schools have signed up to the sustainable schools programme, and Encams, the environment charity, is helping to identify the top 56 in England. Andrew Suter, the programmes manager, said: "We need to capture that enthusiasm and show them how to get there."

So, what works? Sister Kathleen Colmer, head of St Antony's primary in Newham, London, which registered with Eco-Schools, an international award programme, 12 years ago, said the support of governors and the leadership team was vital for success. "It has to involve the whole school. It has to go right down to the children and to bring the parents along too."

Stephen Potter, principal of Lambeth Academy in south London, said schools could not take it for granted that all parents would think the goals of sustainable education were progressive and good: there were fundamental differences over transport and the introduction of healthy food.

Ms Finlayson said that sustainable development was very broad. It was not only about energy-saving and the environment, but also about social justice and economics. Professor Scott added that the Government was right to try to break down the somewhat artificial divisions between environmental, and social and human issues. The focus should be much wider than energy efficiency.

Mr Potter said Lambeth Academy had found that global citizenship was a good starting point. His school had learned lessons from the way a school in Sierra Leone dealt with conflict resolution. It had also used the same school's personalised education programme, introduced with very slim resources, as a model.

Gearoid Lane, managing director of British Gas New Energy, said: "There are opportunities for schools to engage in a very positive way. From this October, they will be required to have Display Energy certificates. For each school you'll have an A - G rating like you have on your fridge."

The group saw the role of children as one of the main ingredients of success. Mr Potter said sustainable education was embedded in most subjects, but students' active engagement was vital.

Marianne Cutler, of the Association of Science Education, was worried that 15-year-olds felt powerless to make a difference. "We need to move those children on," she said.

Liz Jackson, acting head of education for WWF-UK, said we needed a shift to more classroom democracy, and that was especially difficult in secondary schools. "Some teachers are great about giving ownership of lessons to students. Others find it more difficult to stand back." Successful schools created a safe environment so that people felt they could take risks.

Ms Finlayson said the research showed that three things were important: to engage teachers in action research, to get them to critique their practice and a whole school approach.

Are examples of good practice the best way to help schools? The group was cautious. A school that had been working on sustainable education for 25 years might appear daunting to one just starting out. Mr Suter said schools should start with one simple thing. "It could be as simple as getting a walking bus started. Then you ask why," he said. "The key is to get them engaged on something they feel passionately about." Professor Scott said it was very important to understand that schools had different starting points.

Several members of the group said that secondary schools were finding the introduction of sustainable education more difficult than primaries, partly because of the constraints of the curriculum.

Yasmin Karami, of Global Action Plan, said: "It needs to be part of a whole school policy. In secondaries, there needs to be cross-departmental planning. That is really difficult because teachers have a fully charged timetable."

Maggie Smith, a lecturer at the Open University said: "The people I talk to in geography tend to call themselves lone rangers. They talk about the constraints on their time."

Yet investing time in environmental issues paid dividends, speakers argued.

Ms Blower said it was interesting that the independent Primary Review found children were anxious about climate change, but that anxiety was reduced in schools that started to address environmental questions.

Teachers need good training if the sustainable schools programme is to succeed, the group agreed. Ms Cutler said science teachers were eager to come on courses directly related to the national curriculum, but those on sustainable development had a poor uptake.

However, Ms Blower said the NUT was overwhelmed with applications for its globalisation courses, which took place at the weekend in teachers' own time.

Professor Scott said the Training and Development Agency didn't appear to understand the sustainability agenda. "If I were critical of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, it would be that they have not instructed the TDA to sort this out," he said.

The tone of the meeting was optimistic. Schools are already engaged on an array of small projects. Some are developing a whole-school approach, and some are beginning to work with their communities and local businesses.

Mr Suter said: "The programme works best where there is local support. In lots of cases that may be a really good local authority. Sometimes it is the wildlife trusts.

"Schools need somebody to talk to who will just say, go for it."

- Ann Finlayson, Commissioner for Education, Sustainable Development Commission

- Scott Ghagan, Deputy Director, Head of Business Resource Efficiency and Consumers, Defra

- Yasmin Karami, Curriculum Resource Development Manager, Global Action Plan

- Andrew Thorne, Schools Capital Design Team, Department for Children, Schools and Families

- Maggie Smith, Lecturer in Education, Open University

- Andrew Suter, Programmes Manager, ECO Schools

- Christine Blower, Acting General Secretary, NUT

- Stephen Potter, Principal, Lambeth Academy

- Sister Kathleen Colmer, Head Teacher of St Antony's Primary School, London

- Gearoid Lane, Managing Director of British Gas New Energy, British Gas

- Liz Jackson, Acting Head of Education, WWF-UK

- Norman Farmer, Chair, National Association for Environmental Education

- Professor William Scott, Director, Centre for Education and Environment Research, University of Bath

- Marianne Cutler, Exec Director, Professional and Curriculum Innovation, Association for Science Education.

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