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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 such as these to work with staff to find solutions, ahead of communicating changes to the school community, helped to equip these students 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.

At Sevenoaks School, sustainability is positioned as one of core five 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.

Curriculum innovation

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 different social problems and consider the different individuals and groups who could affect change. Students were encouraged to use different creative means to advocate for a 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.

Student Leadership

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.

Service Programme

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.

Global Partnerships

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.

Green Week

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 show-case 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.

References

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

Authors

Hélène Bonsall is a biology teacher, CAS Coordinator and previous Head of Environmental Sustainability Education at Sevenoaks School. Cat Davison is a critical thinking and Theory of Knowledge teacher, Director of Service and Partnerships at Sevenoaks School and Chair of the Schools Community Action group linked to the Independent Schools Council.*