Tuesday 14 October 2008

Towards a whole school approach... please!

I attended the London Sustainable Schools Forum yesterday at the Resource centre on Holloway road. The event intended to advise those teachers who are enthusiastic about sustainable schools on how to instigate a whole school approach. The LSSF take a case study approach and we were told about the latest buzz word ‘care’ by a primary school from Wimbledon. In the first break out session I attended, the ‘E-Squad’ from a school in Barnet told us about the student led changes they had made to their school campus. The interesting thing about the sixth formers from Barnet is that they were very keen to point out the benefits they’d felt from being involved with the E-squad. They are now more confident, they have learned to do presentations, write letters, plan and run projects and so on. They were also very proud of the recognition they had received from local government right up to 10 Downing street (they had been to meet Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to discuss their sustainability work). At the centre of the E-Squad was fun, if they didn't enjoy doing it, they wouldn't have done it, that was clear.

The second break out session I attended was run by Helen Adams, the chair of LSSF and a teacher at a highly diverse and urbanised primary school in Kings Cross. Her story impressed me as her school had realised that the curriculum, rather than the campus or the community was the place to start on sustainability. A condition needed for this to happen was a freedom to change the curriculum. There were some in the session who felt they had absolutely no freedom to change their schools curriculum, whereas some (happier) teachers had a lot more freedom. Helen described that changing the curriculum was a lengthy process that can’t be rushed. To begin the change they asked the question: What will children need to know, do and be in order to meet the challenges and opportunities of the twenty first century? The answers to this question shaped the curriculum of their school. She was keen to highlight that although the process was a good blueprint, other schools wishing to go down this route need to tailor make their curriculum to reflect the demographic and geographic conditions of their school. This was most explicitly exemplified by a call to help children love their local environment (whatever it is).

By taking a curriculum changing approach to becoming a sustainable school the chances for deep change are far greater. In my view there is little point making superficial, conspicuous changes to the school fabric while the curriculum of the school continues to educate students to ‘compete and consume’ rather than ‘care and conserve’ as Stephen Sterling states. Sterling calls for a transformative education rather than a transmissive education. He points out that a paradigm shift towards Sustainable Education is needed. Sustainability must not be an add on that is contradictory to the underlying values generated by the school system and wider society. The values that we need the adults of the future need to be fostered in sustainable schools, curriculum change is therefore fundamental. Given the existence of the National Curriculum and the needs of external exams, curriculum change in secondary schools is much harder to produce than in Primary schools, primary schools need to take the lead. If, as Jake Reynolds argued, in the plenary session yesterday, OFSTED start taking sustainability more seriously we could make progress in secondary schools. I just hope OFSTED don’t settle for superficial sustainability to tick their boxes!

The big question that teachers need to ask in my view is what do we want children to be? What values do we want them to have? In my view it might be valuable to ask what we don’t want them to be... in terms of sustainability we don’t want them to be image obsessed, status obsessed, infantilised, individualistic and materialistic. Schools must help children navigate the cultural bombardment of these values, it is not enough to tell them to be caring and environmentally friendly if they grow up to aspire to exotic travel, celebrity lifestyles, big houses, big cars and so on. We do want our children to enjoy their lives without compromising the ability of others to enjoy theirs.

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