Tomorrow people

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Building a sustainable school isn't just about bricks and mortar; it's about activating young minds. Stephanie Northen reports

When the children at an Oxfordshire primary asked for an example of renewable energy, their headteacher bought them a pound;3.99 toy windmill.

"They weren't impressed," says Richard Jones. "They told me to get them something that actually worked." Four weeks later, Hagbourne primary near Didcot had raised pound;2,500. Three months after that a mini wind turbine was installed on the school roof. It generates tiny amounts of power - and huge amounts of environmental awareness.

Not that the children were lacking in that respect. Hagbourne numbers an Eco-school green flag among its many environmental awards. It is one of few schools in the world that has won the right to fly the flag forever. The primary, recently praised in a report on the micro-generation of power, is the embodiment of Tony Blair's 2004 vision of a "living, learning place in which to explore what a sustainable lifestyle means". At Hagbourne, it comes down to caring for the planet, the community and each other.

It's not a sentimental ethos, but a confident, busy one. The children recycle cans, turn off lights and make compost. They monitor energy use across the school and in the solar-heated swimming pool. Crucially, they also take decisions and act on them. They decided to have an allotment.

They decided to grow trees for shade - and planted 200. And two of them travelled to Australia to address 1,500 conference delegates on sustainable development. It's their school, says Mr Jones, just as it is their planet, and they must be in the driving seat.

Sustainability runs through everything. "We don't demarcate between skills for life and sustainability," he says. "The work we are doing on sustainability is part of the children's education and it is seamless."

What is important, says Julia Sargent, an environmental consultant who has been advising Hagbourne for more than 10 years, is that sustainability is "built in, not bolted on". Her words should resonate with a government that launched Building Schools for the Future, the biggest education construction project since Victorian times. Tony Blair says each new school should have sustainability embedded in "its bricks and mortar and the way it uses and even generates its own power". But will they?

Opinion is divided. True, regulations have been tightened up. Since 2004, new schools have had to achieve a "very good" rating in the BRE consultancy's environmental assessment method (Breeam), and the Department for Education and Skills is to publish its Big Green Shiny Book on sustainable school design in April. "The Government is giving clear messages," says Craig White, of White Design, the architects behind the award-winning sustainable Kingsmead primary in Northwich, Cheshire. "It believes it is important for the planet and also for learning outcomes.

Sustainable design gives you a better school with better results and with happier teachers."

But not everyone is convinced that the DfES is doing enough. Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, warned recently of tens of billions of pounds being wasted on poorly designed, poorly constructed schools. Opportunities to save huge sums on energy bills - and to activate the younger generation - will be missed, he said. Ann Finlayson, the SDC's new education commissioner, says the Big Green Shiny Book will not be mandatory and that the Breeam assessment only requires schools to reach a "very good" level 3 and not an "excellent" level 4.

"That really means we are building schools to past housing standards, not future ones," she says. "It could have been leading edge, but it looks more like a slow catch-up game."

Sustainable design, she says, is still regarded by the building industry as an "extra", that can be lopped off to conform to the Treasury's strict, and short-termist, views on what a school should cost. Gail Hirsch of SUSchool agrees. "Sustainable buildings are just not happening. It is all talk and no one has thought it through," she says. At one school near SUSchool's base in West Yorkshire's Alternative Technology Centre, the local authority recently removed two-thirds of the cycle racks. Another new school has no lockers for children increasingly expected to walk to school. "Are they supposed to trudge to and fro lugging all their books with them?" asks Ms Hirsch. New schools must have "all the sustainable elements that we can possibly manage and they should be mandatory", she says. "It is time we stopped talking and actually did it."

While Craig White has done it at Kingsmead primary, not every headteacher gets to work with an architect who lives and breathes sustainable design.

Most of those consulted about a new school are not green evangelists like Richard Jones at Hagbourne and are too busy doing their day job. "They don't know what to ask for," says Gail Hirsch. "They are not experts on building, never mind sustainable development, and they have town planners and architects, all supposed experts, giving them contrary information."

One school that has got it right is Spen Valley sports college in Liversedge, near Bradford, a few miles down the road from SUSchool's headquarters. Earlier this month Spen Valley won a government green energy award for its wind turbine, which was the brainchild of the school council; West Yorkshire local authority met the pound;65,000 cost. "It's been a real boost to the school," says headteacher TobyEastaugh. "Not only is it intended to cut our energy bills by 10 per cent, but it has spin-offs for our teaching in geography, science, maths and the environment. And the students are better at problem-solving and working together now."

Spen Valley's project chimes with Craig White's work at Kingsmead primary.

"For us, the building is not a dumb box in which teaching is done. It is a teaching and learning tool in its own right," he says. Kingsmead pupils monitor the heating, lighting, ventilation and rainwater harvesting systems and teachers can use the data in lessons, for example by measuring rainfall and discussing the water cycle.

The SDC's Ann Finlayson goes further. A sustainable design must not just involve children in how their building works; it should prepare them for a future where society isn't driven by individual ambition but by collaboration and co-operation. If they are to survive, children must be able to cope with change and uncertainty and to understand how complex systems such as the environment work. So stop designing schools like factories, and build in spaces for decision-making and debate. How about a transparent school council room, she suggests. Or a circular classroom.

An unusual secondary school is moving down that road. The new St Francis of Assisi academy in Liverpool specialises in the environment and the building has many sustainable features, says its architect Richard Woods, of Capita Percy Thomas. These include the largest number of photovoltaic cells in solar panels of any school in the country and sedum-roofed wings and halls that are partly buried in the ground for better insulation. The building isn't just a resource, he says, it's a book that hasn't been written yet.

The writing will be up to the pupils and staff. For example, it is up to them how to develop the huge outdoor "roof classroom", an elevated garden covered partly in crushed cockle shells and seeded with local wildflowers.

The international conservation organisation WWF praised St Francis for "stepping out of the comfort zone of mainstream education" and putting the environment at its heart.

White Design has also been involved with St Francis, advising on how to integrate the environmental specialism across the curriculum - not easy in a secondary school. "We use every trick in the book to make sure sustainability is delivered. If it is part of the teaching plan, it is hard to engineer it out when it comes to cost-cutting," says Craig White. St Francis of Assisi cost slightly less than 10 per cent more than the average secondary, says Richard Woods, but some sustainable features - such as the correct orientation of a the building to maximise natural light, heat and air - are free.

Sustainability also comes much cheaper if it is included from day one. As Craig White says: "If you bolt it on rather than build it in, it will cost more and it can cost spectacularly more. Everyone goes through cost-cutting, and if you have simply bolted a windmill on your roof it will get unbolted very quickly." White Design is currently working on Kingsmeads mark 2 and 3 in Monmouth and in Aberfan, an important development, says Mr White, as sustainable schools must stop being designed as "one-offs" with high prototype costs each time. "They simply have to become everyday."

To read the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable report on micro-generation, go to and click on 'Media' then 'Media stories'. For more information on SUSchool go to


It's the whole-life cost of sustainable design that's important, says Andy Rayfield, senior project manager at Norfolk architects NPS. In 2003 NPS completed three Classrooms of the Future projects for the DfES. The buildings are so well insulated that conventional boilers are not needed.

Rainwater flushes the toilets and solar power heats the water.

One school, Hevingham primary, has a ground-source heat pump which exploits the fact that the earth is warmer than the air. Another, Thurlton, has a wind turbine. The buildings have been evaluated continuously and are performing well, Hevingham astoundingly so, says Mr Rayfield. For example, it takes 49kw to maintain the Victorian part of Hevingham at a pleasant temperature. By contrast, only 19kw is needed to heat the new section, which is around 60 per cent bigger.

"If you were an accountant presented with the cost of a traditional build at say pound;1,000 and a green build at pound;1,500, the decision would be to go traditional every time," says Mr Rayfield. "But it is not about that. It is about 20 to 30 years into the future when fossil fuels become scarcer and even more expensive. It makes sense to spend in the beginning and recoup over a long time."

Imant Ladusans, Thurlton's head, is delighted with his new two-classroom block. "It all works and is very efficient. The solar power warms the water to just the right temperature for the children. The underfloor heating keeps the building at a beautiful constant temperature with no chilly spots, and we can reverse it in the summer to cool us down."

As at Kingsmead, a sustainable building sparked sustainable thinking. When it was new, says Mr Ladusans, it really did inspire the children, not just to monitor energy use, but also to pick up litter and eat more healthily.

His only complaint is that his wind turbine is slightly "tokenistic". "I like it. It is a calming and soothing influence. I just wish it was bigger." As for the children, "well, it is just normal for them now". Which perhaps is just as it should be.

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