Sustainability: a powerful pedagogical tool

A group of students from West Sussex are an inspirational example of how sustainability can be used to create positive change in the school and home. Led by a student ‘chairman’ the team at St Andrews C.E High School for Boys in Worthing have been a shining light in Global Action Plan’s sustainability programmes in recent times; as finalists and repeat participants in the Sky Rainforest Rescue Schools Challenge and equally impressive water savers in the Aqua Innovation schools programme.
Amongst many impressive initiatives the St Andrews students managed to reduce their school’s energy wastage by 50% and had the Mayor of Worthing and the local Fairtrade steering group as well as parents, staff and students attend a Fairtrade coffee morning to raise money for their partner school in Africa.
Used to promote cross-curricular learning, enhance student engagement or simply to improve environmental performance, sustainability can reap numerous benefits for schools, their local communities and the environment. “I have seldom if ever worked on a project which has so many obvious benefits to so many individuals for so many different reasons” Project partner, Aqua Innovation.
The boys from St Andrews demonstrate how well designed sustainability programmes can be driven by the students themselves to benefit the school and wider community. To achieve these benefits however it is essential to understand what makes a good sustainability programme and how teachers, students and the school community can be supported in implementing this more effectively.

What can sustainability achieve in the classroom?
Based on more than 15 years experience developing and delivering sustainability education programmes we recently put to paper Global Action Plan’s vision for sustainability in schools. Titled Teaching the Future, the vision describes the key ingredients we believe are necessary for successful sustainability education programmes in schools; programmes that help to improve school performance and quality of learning, engage students, save money and protect the environment.

Improving the quality of learning: through hands on and practical learning experiences, as well as opportunities to diversify the curriculum, sustainability can be used to enhance students’ learning experience and improve their life skills. 83% of teachers taking part in the Sky Rainforest Rescue Schools Challenge said that pupils had improved self-esteem and other life skills such as confidence and team building.

Improving performance: it’s not just teachers who recognise the benefits. OFSTED reports frequently praise the impact that sustainability can have. The 2011 OFSTED report of a school that took part in our sustainable food programme Appetite for Action stated “in mathematics and numeracy, children have benefited from a sustained learning activity for their Appetite for Action submission. This has helped them use a range of mathematical knowledge in real life situations. Commendably, your children achieved first prize in this UK wide competition”.
Achieving real savings: based on the results of schools that have taken part in Global Action Plan’s programmes, by reducing waste and promoting efficiency, schools across England are collectively capable of saving £76 million per year and reducing annual carbon emissions by 675,000 tonnes. That’s enough money to employ around 2,000 extra teachers and the equivalent carbon emissions associated with heating and powering 111,000 homes.
Engaging the community: from site visits to recycling and water treatment plants, through to eco evenings, gardening weeks and Fairtrade coffee mornings, sustainability is a great foundation for engaging the local community.
Another successful Appetite for Action schools partnered with a local farm to provide wider learning opportunities for their students and have now set up a scheme where they sell vegetables to local shops. Their teacher described the role of sustainability at the school “no longer the preserve of after school clubs or one-off events, learning about the environment and our place therein is now an everyday part of our school”.

Key ingredients for successful sustainability programmes
Charities, local authorities and businesses all play important roles in supporting schools and young people embark on their sustainability journey. In our experience the most successful programmes are at the very least student led, linked to the curriculum and offer an opportunity to diversify the teaching and learning experience. In addition the following two elements are vital to ensuring students and teachers engage in something that has long term benefits for the school.
Be flexible: the school environment is dynamic and teachers often have precious little time.  Sustainability programmes therefore need to be flexible to meet with the changing needs of teachers and schools. They must cater for schools just starting out on their sustainability journey, through to Green Flag Eco- schools that are looking to take sustainability education to the next level.
Teachers need ready-to-go resources that they can pick up and run with, and clear links to the curriculum allow integration of the programme into classroom activities, helping teachers deliver against existing objectives without creating additional work.
Provide support: whether for six weeks, a year, or three years it is important to support the school, and in particular the lead teacher throughout the programme. Facilitating workshops, attending progress meetings, providing regular project updates and email reminders or just picking up the phone and having a chat are various ways of supporting the school. We have found that personal contact really boosts teachers’ confidence, helping to ensure momentum is maintained and that programme milestones are achieved.
“The support staff have been wonderful and deserve a lot of credit for its success. It is a really well-organised, simple, well‑structured programme and I love it!” Teacher, Sky Rainforest Rescue Schools Challenge.

Advice to teachers
Seek support: firstly, don’t try to do it on your own, if you do you risk either burning out or simply re-inventing the wheel. A plethora of resources, networks, websites and programmes are available. From 20 minute activity ideas and ready-made lesson plans to fully facilitated programmes, there are many sources of support and guidance for schools who want to successfully embed and benefit from sustainability education.
Student led: there are innumerate opportunities to engage students in a variety of subject areas across the curriculum. Students are also passionate advocates for the protection of the environment, and are amazingly creative and engaging. It therefore comes as no surprise that the best programmes utilise students’ innovative ideas, perspectives and enthusiasm to drive both their own learning and the positive change within the school.

A teacher from St Andrews commented on her students’ experience “the team did everything themselves, with only the occasional steer from me. They were given the Challenge website and were told that if they wanted to take it on that we’d support them. And they just went for it. They’ve been very organised, holding regular meetings – and sending me the minutes so I knew what they’d been up to. It’s been brilliant for building their confidence.”
Establish the baseline: knowledge, attitude and behaviour surveys, meter readings and classroom spot check investigations allow students to monitor progress throughout the programme and apply their learning to real life situations. Understanding the school’s baseline level of performance provides a starting point to compare your progress against, enabling you to communicate these achievements throughout the programme. This will help gain the support of senior management as you continue to demonstrate the financial, educational and environmental benefits the programme has brought to the school.
Get buy-in: motivated students and supportive management are key ingredients to ensure the ‘sustainability’ of your sustainability programme. In many of Global Action Plan’s programmes students deliver ‘pitch to switch’ presentations to their head teacher and other senior staff to encourage them to support their cause; students can be powerful and convincing advocates.
Communicate success: school assemblies, awards presentations and student certificates can be an effective way of recognising and rewarding the hard work that students have done. When other staff, students and families know about your success they will value the contribution you and the students are making to the school community and are more likely to support your initiatives.
In recognition of their winning efforts the boys from St Andrews won £500 and a trip to the Sky Studios in London to present their rainforest story to a room full of senior business representatives. According to their teacher “the trip to Sky to present their ideas was a real highlight and a great reward for working so hard.”
Giving students the opportunity to communicate results to the wider school community and celebrate their success also helps to build the foundations of long-term change, with students feeling a sense of achievement and school management recognising the business case from the financial savings achieved.
In 2011 press coverage on the achievements of another winning school from the Sky Rainforest Rescue Schools Challenge prompted the local authority to fund much needed renovations to improve the school building. Prior to this, and not through lack of trying, the head teacher of this small primary school in rural Scotland had been repeatedly unsuccessful in convincing the council that the renovations were a worthwhile investment.
From curriculum diversification and outdoor learning opportunities through to life skill development and improved OFSTED reports, sustainability can be used as a powerful tool to enrich the school environment and the teaching and learning experience for students and staff. Working with the students at St Andrews and many other schools like them only reinforces for me the potential for sustainability to bring real long lasting benefits to schools, the wider community and the environment.

Further information
To find out more download the full Teaching the Future report at or contact Global Action Plan at or on 020 7420 4444