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How to create a sustainable school

A recent study found that while over 90 per cent of Australians are concerned about environmental sustainability, only half believe they are doing their fair share to save our planet. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) describes our predicament perfectly: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying the planet, and the last one that can do anything about it.”

The impact of environmental issues such as climate change, population growth and resource availability are causing global concern, and as a result schools around Australia are asking themselves how they can become more sustainable.

As educators, our ultimate goal is to equip our students with the fundamental skills needed to live a thriving life beyond the school gates. And now for the first time, we carry the vital responsibility of shaping the next generation into socially and environmentally aware global citizens who can protect and maintain a healthy earth for a future world.

In 2014, Australian educators undertook a curriculum redesign that highlighted the need for educators to give special attention at all stages and across multiple subject domains to three priority areas, one of which was sustainability.

And while sustainability in education has remained a blanket priority across the national curriculum, the action varies greatly between schools around Australia. This has been in part due to a lack of resources or funding, support, time, or simply because educators don’t know where to start.

Sadly, the situation on climate change seems to have come to a critical point. To encourage a greener and more environmentally-conscious next generation, schools around Australia need to step up, and shift the focus from seeking only to educate students on the issue, to also showing them how they can help solve the problem first hand.

The great news is that every step towards sustainable practice can make all the difference to your community, and the planet. Below are some effective and creative ways to reduce your carbon footprint and become a more sustainable school.

Target fundraising activities towards sustainability
Installing sustainability infrastructure like solar panels, water tanks and wind generators can be very expensive. However, these investments are great ways to conserve energy, save money, and perhaps more importantly, establish a sustainability culture, in the long run.

An effective way to pay for these big-ticket items is to target your school’s fundraising activities towards them.

At Tintern Grammar, the money collected from our last two giant annual fairs has been directed towards acquiring a substantial bank of solar panels and a wind generator for our new Speagle Science Centre. And this year, our 2019 Annual Appeal will continue to raise funds for a new battery energy storage system and additional solar panels.

While it can be a slow burn to reach your funding goal, every dollar towards it counts and it will be worth it in the long run.

Encourage recycling
Recycling not only benefits the environment but can actually save your school money on waste disposal. Setting up a recycling system is a hands-on, interdisciplinary lesson that educates students about the environment, personal responsibility, community action, sustainability and natural resource management.

In addition to your in-school recycling program, there are a number of great free recycling programs that schools can participate in to raise interest from students.

For example, there’s a company by the name of Replas (Recycled Plastic Products) that accepts soft plastics and makes it into a piece of outdoor furniture. Our student-lead Green Team are planning to run a soft plastics drive for their donation. We’ve found such calls to action to be a great way to show the students how practical sustainability can be and it gives them a common goal to work towards.

Make the most of government resources
Recently we had a waste education officer from the Maroondah Council come to visit us and chat to our environmental group, the Green Team, about the ways we could improve waste management at the school. Many resources like this are free, so it’s worth checking out the services from your local council to see what support is available.

Additionally, schools should look at registering for ResourceSmart Schools, a free program by Sustainability Victoria that supports Victorian schools to embed sustainability across the school facilities, community and curriculum. When you join the program, you get access to an online portal where you can learn ways to integrate sustainability, apply for grants and additional support, and win awards for your efforts.

Participate in community events
There’s plenty of community events and pre-organised activities that the school community can get involved in. For example, Clean Up Australia Day is an opportunity for students, staff and family to get out and do their bit for the environment. Better yet, schools can even run their own Clean Up Australia initiative on school grounds to help students get involved.

There are also opportunities to partner with charities and foundations. This year, Tintern is putting a team together for the A2 Upstream Challenge to raise money for Fair Share – an organisation that rescues food that would otherwise go to waste and cooks it into free nutritious meals for people in need.

Encourage student agency on the issue
Student agency is not simply about giving students the opportunity to communicate ideas and opinions; it’s about students having the power to influence and action change. We have been led by the student-initiated Green Team, comprised of around 45 students (and growing). The Green Team meet regularly to identify areas for improvement and create sustainable solutions around the school. They then get the opportunity to present their ideas to the school leadership, and more often than not their ideas go from ideation to implementation with full-support from school leaders.

Positively, when students are empowered to enact change, they not only build a vested interest in the cause, but also encourage others to jump on board.

These are all great low-cost initiatives, which are relatively easy to implement and work to both educate and empower students, encourage participation and collaboration, and importantly act to put sustainable practice into action, which is imperative to protecting the environment and creating a better world for generations to come.

Bradley Fry is principal at Tintern Grammar.

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