Not so long ago, sustainability was little more than a buzzword in schools. These days, its presence on the curriculum is a given and it usually manifests itself in one of a few ways. For some schools, it’s a dedicated sustainable development week. For others, it’s a specially formed eco-council that collects recyclable materials and designs posters about turning lights off (on reused paper, naturally). But for a small percentage, it is all that and much, much more.
Take Home Farm Primary School in Colchester, Essex, for example. When headteacher Richard Potter (pictured, right) arrived in September 2012 with plans to enrich the existing curriculum, he found the “dark, dingy, cold” school building to be an unusual source of inspiration.
Being largely constructed of ill-fitting UPVC panels wrapped around a heat-sapping courtyard, the building’s gas and electricity bills were “through the roof”. Given the school’s name and the fact that Potter had come from a school with a purpose-built eco-building, a curriculum focus on ecology seemed a natural fit for Home Farm.
Four years, a courtyard infill and 200 solar panels later, Potter has not only created a plethora of meaningful learning opportunities for the pupils, but also a £9,000 saving on his gas and electricity bill. The best bit? The cash is going straight back into the curriculum.
So, what’s the secret? How can it be possible to transform what Potter describes as “an architectural nightmare” into the first primary school in Essex to be awarded a grade B rating on its Energy Performance Certificate? Here, the headteacher explains his three steps to sustainable success.
1 Get the children on board
“If you are able to enthuse the children, you’ve got a very good grounding from which to make change. Start by forming and leading an eco-council that has power and a voice. Together, make a list of priorities towards a specific and achievable goal – for example, the Keep Britain Tidy Green Flag award.
“Allow the children to get creative and think big. Listen to their ideas and approach them with a growth mindset. What are the barriers and how can these be overcome? Often, the biggest stumbling block is finding the large sums of money required for such big projects. Let them get involved by writing letters to those that might be able to help.”
2 Enthuse the rest of the school
“Get everyone at the school involved in the project. School governors, the PTA and even the local residents are an essential part of the networking and fundraising process. Be prepared to sell your vision in order to inspire them to raise money and promote the cause for the duration of the project.
“Work closely together with your school business manager or finance officer to bring together thorough and coherent business plans to present to these parties. Dedicate yourselves to the project – even if that means filling your head with bizarre scientific facts, such as the amount of heat that your average child radiates per hour.”
3 Go for it!
“With your goal in mind and the school community on board, all you need to do is follow it through. Whether it’s composting and growing your own fruit and vegetables, or triple-glazed windows and solar panels, anything is possible.
“While implementing sustainable projects may well be a learning process for you, it will almost certainly provide manifold meaningful educational opportunities for the children. Not only are there practical skills to be developed, such as project management and crop cultivation, but also soft skills, including patience and attitude.
“Remember to keep your eye out for any relevant sustainability awards to apply for. They are a fantastic method of motivation and a great way to recognise the hard work of the staff and students.
“Last year, Home Farm was one of four winners of the UK’s leading green energy prize for schools and colleges – the Ashden Sustainable School Award, which recognises schools for their achievements in the ethos and practice of sustainability.
“Using the Ashden award money, the school’s next grand plan is to completely renovate our old 1970s swimming pool by investing in a geothermal heating pump, which uses ground energy to warm the water. That way, I’m going to cut down our gas expenditure almost totally.
“Although pupils from Home Farm and other local schools already benefit from year-round access to the pool, the money saved will go into further fulfilling the school’s original ambition – making a difference to children’s lives by enriching the curriculum.
“In a time of squeezed school budgets, this is certainly something to celebrate.”
Nicola Davison is a former teacher and is now a content producer for TES Resources @nicolajdavison