‘When we work together to make informed decisions, with students at the helm of this work, we can make a significant impact to our planet as a single school’
Hélène Bonsall and Cat Davison, of Sevenoaks School, detail how the school is putting sustainability at the forefront of its curriculum, ensuring students play a lead role in creating positive change.
Embedding environmental sustainability education: our ongoing journey
Our students have shown remarkable leadership in the field of environmental sustainability education (ESE) and action. It was our students who campaigned to remove plastic bottles from packaged lunches and worked with staff to install water fountains (which show how many bottles have been saved); it was also our students who advocated for a policy of beef and lamb free weeks, presenting staff with their calculations of the carbon emissions that would be saved. Supporting students to work with staff to find solutions, ahead of communicating changes to the school community, helped to equip them with the skills needed to create wider change whilst strengthening student voice in the school. At the same time, school leaders need to consider their education as a whole and ensure that the ideas of students are part of a wider framework for environmental understanding and action.
What is environmental sustainability education?
A frequently used definition of sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (McKeown, Hopkins, Rizzi, & Chrystalbridge, 2006). This encompasses economic, social and environmental aspects, which are all interlinked. Applied to environmental sustainability, this definition suggests we act to ensure that human interactions with the environment meet the needs of the present human population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, through sound environmental management. Environmental sustainability education aims to provide our students with an education that empowers them to act on matters of environmental sustainability throughout their lives, inspiring them to become more informed in this process. In this, we aim for students and staff to recognize the significance of all their daily choices, as well as asking others in positions of wider power and responsibility to make decisions that ensure a future for our planet and its protection of the species and communities of people within it.
How can we embed environmental sustainability education?
As with notions of inclusion, it is vital to consider ways in which an understanding and practice of environmental sustainability principles is embedded within the wider fabric of the school’s education, rather than constrained to the initiatives of a small group of eco enthusiasts. At Sevenoaks School, sustainability is positioned as one of five core areas put forward by our Institute of Service and Partnerships. These ask our students and staff to consider how their actions are informed, collaborative, sustainable, inclusive and reflective. Through a framework embedded within community service and service-learning curriculums, students explore the meaning and application of these principles ahead of engaging in any form of community work or social entrepreneurship project. For example, before permission is given to sell an item in school, students will be asked to consider the materials involved, and look at different suppliers in consideration of their environmental impact.
To ensure understanding of environmental sustainability and action was at the core of the Sevenoaks education from the outset, alongside its clear positioning within the geography curriculum, students critically engage in practical tasks relating to carbon footprints and plastics consumption through our Year 7 Society and Change course, a service-learning curriculum launched in 2019, which explores environmental justice and charitable ethics. This understanding is strengthened in Year 8 by a practical social entrepreneurship programme which offers students £10 seed funding to create an enterprise which solves a social or environmental problem. This year we have moved this away from a purely fundraising-based challenge, ensuring that students consider the social and environmental impact of their products, alongside profit raised for a charity of their choice.
Many of our students want to use their voice to lead change; to support them in developing this skill set, in 2021 we launched an advocacy project as part of our Core Critical Thinking Programme. Lessons explored tools to analyse various social problems and consider the different individuals and groups who could affect change. Students were encouraged to use different creative means to advocate for change in a field that mattered to them, with over a third of students choosing issues relating to environmental sustainability and producing a diverse range of strategies to catalyse change including animations, letters to MPs and powerful artwork. Our sixth form students helped to design the lessons focused on environmental advocacy, giving examples from their own engagement in climate-related networks.
Our cross-year student Eco-Committee has been instrumental in harnessing student passion for improved environmental sustainability. It gives students a space to act on matters of importance to them, strengthening the student voice within our community. This year, our students have been working together on initiatives ranging from water sustainability education to setting up a battery recycling system. Meeting regularly has allowed students to encounter peers with similar goals and form a networked team to implement student-led initiatives more easily; many hands make light work; duplication of initiatives is avoided, and group discussion of ideas allows for a deeper understanding of environmental issues.
The ‘cross-year-group’ approach ensures continuity of projects as older students leave the school and integration of new, younger students as they join the school. The Keep Britain Tidy’s Eco-Schools framework has provided the Eco-Committee with helpful guidance, for example, in preparing meeting agendas and taking minutes of their discussions to determine key action points. It has allowed them to select, develop, implement, and monitor their initiatives, giving students clear targets to work towards as well as fostering ownership and agency, as they strive for their Bronze, Silver and Green Flag Awards.
To support the development of students' leadership skills further, and connect them to like-minded students, we have also created an online social leadership partnership programme. This brings students from 10 Kent schools together for weekly discussion-based sessions with guest speakers who work in social impact fields. Students consider different areas of understanding relating to driving sustainable change such as problem analyses, systems change, and creating spaces for dialogue.
The Eco-Committee intersects with the hands-on environmental education opportunities offered through our weekly service programme. This sees over 400 students engage in over 30 projects, a quarter of these having a clear environmental focus to them. The school’s Green Team enables students to reconnect with nature by growing vegetables on a school allotment with a view to donating produce to a local food bank, whilst the Action for Biodiversity group are mapping and protecting wildlife in and around one of our school’s ponds. Two of our upper sixth students created www.footprintfacts.org, a carbon footprint calculation website, and now have their own student team who write online courses and create further understanding of the causes of carbon emissions.
Kent Eco partnership
Within the service programme, we created an Eco-Schools group that runs sessions for local primary schools to help them work towards their Green Flag Award, with over 15 local schools involved. This project-based learning approach exposes students to problem solving in the ‘real world’ and allows them to explore environmental sustainability beyond a purely academic context and take a leadership role within their own schools.
Having a global partnerships element to environmental education work seems vital, given the global implications of climate change. Students in the EduSTEM service group have worked with Ghanaian students and the EduSpots team in Ghana to help design resources for ‘STEM for a Sustainable Future’ summer camps which engage Year 8 students in practical tasks relating to sustainable engineering and climate change, via the EduSpots network of education centres. Our students were able to engage with students and adults in Ghana who have faced significant changes to their environment in recent years which has led to a need for a change of crops and some community members to leave their homes.
All these groups come together for our annual Green Week which throws a spotlight on all our environmental sustainability education and action. This week provides opportunities to raise awareness of local and global issues regarding sustainability, implement and showcase student-led sustainability initiatives and inspire students, staff and, potentially, members of the local community, to adopt more sustainable ways of life. Examples of events encompassed by last year’s Green Week include talks ranging from careers in green engineering to an introduction to horse logging, workshops on how to make eco-friendly laundry detergent and a competition set-up by a local coffee house to explore sustainable solutions to waste in the food industry.
School Sustainability Committee
To ensure that the school’s ESE is joined up in its approach, and that the school itself increasingly acts a role model for environmentally sustainable practice, it is important to create spaces to bring a wide cross-section of school life together. Our Sustainability Committee, which comprises both teaching, non-teaching staff and students, acts as a key forum for advancing the school’s environmental sustainability. Discussions involve all elements of school life, ranging from our catering choices to the school’s use of plastic bottles, to reviewing carbon emissions from flights.
When we work together to make informed decisions, and spread understanding across a whole school community, with students at the helm of this work, we can make a significant impact to our planet as a single school. We are continuing to work on strategies to improve our work in this field and invite any further ideas and reflections.
McKeown, R., Hopkins, C. A., Rizzi, R., & Chrystalbridge, M. (2006). Education for Sustainable Development Toolkit. UNESCO Education for Sustainable Development in Action Learning & Training Tools No.1. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/y5guqh6c