What could your school achieve in the area of sustainability? Pupils must be encouraged to embrace this concept, says Anne Clarke, who describes her school’s successes

By the year 2020 the government wants all schools to become ‘sustainable schools’, and to help make this a reality the DCSF has produced The National Framework for Sustainable Schools, which provides guidance on a whole- school approach to this development.

At Benton Park part of our school vision was that pupils would have respect for themselves, other people and the environment, and this fitted neatly with the principles of sustainability. It seems clear that if you have this message at the heart of the ethos of the school, then you are well placed to promote sustainability as a whole-school initiative.

The DCSF framework offers eight doorways to sustainability:

  • food and drink
  • energy and water
  • travel and traffic
  • purchasing and waste
  • building and grounds
  • inclusion and participation
  • local well-being
  • global dimension.

The framework explains that each of these doorways plays a role in the major areas of school life: the curriculum, campus and community. Benton Park enthusiastically grasped this initiative and began to put its brainstorming into action.

So what do we mean by sustainable development and what makes for a sustainable school (see www.eco-schools.org.uk)? Sustainable development is about enabling all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life without compromising future generations. This means finding ways to improve our lives without damaging the environment and without amassing problems for the future, or transferring them to other parts of society or the world.

Sustainable schools consume less energy, water and materials and produce less waste than their contemporaries, and they enjoy the benefits which come with such careful use of resources. This means they are efficient schools and healthier environments in which to learn. Through the Sustainable Schools Strategy, pupils can learn about sustainability both in the classroom and from their first-hand experience of how their schools are run. This also means they take a hands-on approach and encourage care through all aspects of school life:

  • care for oneself
  • care for each other
  • care for the environment.

As concern for our planet grows, it is essential that we encourage our pupils to embrace the concept of sustainability as common practice. The future world is their world. Additionally, the sustainability strategy fits in well with the ‘Healthy Schools’ initiative, ‘Inclusion Chartermark’ and international school status.

Food and drink
Benton Park was awarded ‘Healthy Schools’ status in 2006. In order to meet this standard, the school has gone a long way to meeting the requirements of a sustainable school in the area of food and drink. The school canteen now buys a lot of fresh meat from local sources and 30% of food is now produced on site – a statistic which will hopefully increase in the future. These measures save on transport costs and are more energy efficient.

By September 2009, secondary schools have to comply with the nutrient-based standards and food-based standards for school lunches, so it is not just the food you serve but its nutritional value that is important. This will be monitored by the school catering agency. To fit in with our international status, we had themed days, for example, a Chinese day when Chinese food is cooked from scratch with fresh produce.

We were also committed to Fairtrade products. In fact, the sixth formers made a presentation to the governing body on the benefits of Fairtrade. They also spoke with the catering staff asking them to place more emphasis on Fairtrade products and had a stand selling ‘Fairtrade’ products at parents’ evenings. They also placed posters around the school to raise awareness among the pupils. We were proud that the impetus for this has come from the pupils themselves.

Water dispensers were installed throughout the school and pupils were allowed to fill their bottles during the day and drink water in lessons when necessary. It was interesting that the pupils themselves had been very much involved with the healthy schools initiative, as we were a school that strongly believed in ‘pupil voice’. It was the pupils who requested healthier options at lunchtime and that the fizzy drinks and chocolate machines were removed. At the time I left, only orange juice, milk and water were available in school. I particularly applauded this move, as we all know that some children are susceptible to the detrimental effects of fizzy drinks and become hyperactive, which is not conducive to good learning.

Energy and water
To set the ball rolling on energy and water savings, we contacted the local council’s energy unit and took on board their recommendations. The result was more careful monitoring of heating and ensuring that the temperature was more evenly distributed throughout the school.  We also tried to control the temperature so that we did not waste energy by having the heating on at the same the time the windows were open.

We had a ‘turn it off’ sign above all the light switches throughout school and conducted a campaign with the staff to ensure that lights were switched off when pupils left the room. Pupils were encouraged to be part of this campaign and its success was demonstrated by the £6,000 reduction we made in electricity costs in one year. New calorifiers were installed to control the heat of the water and valve adjusters put on the water supply so that water was not wasted.

We sent the water, gas and electricity readings to the energy unit for feedback, as all public buildings in Leeds have an energy grade. The school is an old building, so energy saving was more difficult than it would be in many newer buildings – nevertheless, we explored all the options available to us. Better efficiency measures were installed in all our new buildings from the outset.

Travel and traffic
During my latter days at Benton Park, we built new cycle sheds to encourage the students to cycle to school and also encouraged staff to buy a bicycle through the bike to work scheme. Our green travel plan included such proposals as:

  • encouraging staff to take up car share arrangements
  • improving road safety awareness of pupils
  • encouraging pupils to walk to school or to use public transport
  • providing lockers and shower facilities for the staff who cycle to school.

Hopefully the school can play its part in encouraging the pupils and staff to exercise by cycling, reducing the number of cars on the road and the pollution that goes with them.

Purchasing and waste
There is a great deal all schools can achieve in the areas of purchasing and waste. We used local companies to provide our services in order to save on travel and transport, and had a recycling programme which, in part, meant placing bins within school for paper and cardboard, separate from the rest of the waste.

Other recycling initiatives included recycling chairs so they did not end up in landfill and recycling old computers and monitors in Africa. We also took office equipment from local firms which were closing down, so that we also became a receiver of recycled goods.

Building and grounds
As I have already touched on, as our main school building was built in the 1960s, it was more difficult for us to be ecologically friendly than many other more modern schools. However, all our new building projects embraced a higher degree of insulation, double-glazing and better boilers to make more effective use of energy. Clearly, schools in the future that undergo a rebuild through the BSF initiative could think of using solar panels and wind turbines to create energy.

However, with a large number of deciduous trees in lush grounds, the school was not a concrete jungle. Despite numerous building projects over the last decade, we had continued to plant trees to maintain our green environment and to reduce our carbon footprint. We also left part of the school grounds uncultivated, allowing the grass to grow and providing a natural habitat to promote wildlife. The school pond was used by the science department as a natural resource for curriculum projects and to act as a wildlife sanctuary.

Inclusion and participation
Benton Park boasts the Inclusion Chartermark, so it was already well advanced in this aspect of sustainability. We had 24 pupils from a local special school who attend our school 100% of the time and participated in approximately 45% of mainstream lessons. These children had a variety of needs, from Aspergers to autism, moderate learning difficulties to permanent wheelchair care. An inclusive ethos was one of the strengths of the school.

We also worked in a participative way with other schools. Through our specialist school status we developed curriculum projects with our feeder primary schools, also offering support for secondary colleagues – for example, providing teaching support to schools that had difficulties with recruitment.

Local wellbeing
It has always seemed to me to be a dreadful waste of resources if schools are only open during the school day. As part of the Extended Schools Initiative, our premises were used extensively beyond school hours for adult education classes, sports teams and for local groups wanting a place to meet for their various leisure activities. All this supported the idea of sustainability, particularly when several activities were happening at the same time and heating and lighting was being used to its full capacity by several groups.

Global dimension
Benton Park has international status as well. In my time there, the languages department was pro-active in organising trips to France, Germany and Spain. In recent years, it also ran trips to Italy and Hong Kong and was looking forward to a trip to China. We also had close links with a school in South Africa.

However, these links were not just designed to give our pupils a flavour of life in other cultures, but also to strengthen the curriculum. A good example of this was when the curriculum leader for music went to Rio and used his experience there not only to improve the Samba band at Benton Park but also to run music workshops with local primaries and to support local carnivals and festivals with a Samba band element.

It is vitally important to teach our children to respect the environment and take care of our planet for the future. In our present educational climate we seem at times to be obsessed by academic achievement, which we detail in league tables and pursue through Ofsted inspections.

I feel very strongly, however, that it is important to prepare our pupils to become responsible citizens and well-qualified to take their place in the world in a wider sense. Part of this is teaching our pupils to lead healthy, environmentally friendly and energy-saving lives. We want them to step forward with confidence, but not with a large carbon footprint. Some schools further advanced than Benton Park and are already using wind turbines and solar panels to produce energy – but we have made a start.  Together we can have a real impact for the future.