Green shoots across the Commonwealth
Author: Victoria Holdsworth
Article Date: 6 Mar 2008
This year’s Commonwealth Day theme is 'The Environment - Our Future' and one British school is leading the way.
Woodheys Primary School in Sale, Cheshire, in the North West of England used to be an ordinary state school: A collection of drab single storey classrooms, a tarmac playground and an overgrown field next to the staff parking area.
With its mix of 350 pupils drawn from surrounding council estates and the leafier suburbs bordering its catchment area, Woodheys could have represented any one of thousands of local schools around the United Kingdom.
But all that changed when teaching assistant Freda Eyden co-ordinated a project to paint murals on the shabby cloakroom walls, involving staff, pupils and parents in the project. It marked the beginning of a 15-year process which began with redecorating the building and evolved into redefining Woodheys as one of the UK’s pioneering environmental schools.
“The murals won Woodheys an environmental teamwork competition, and we thought: ‘What next?’ We began very simply, making small gardens that reflected the images in the paintings, then parents became involved, and we started composting and recycling,” said Mrs Eyden.
The school was invited to take part in a Sustainable Cities project, in conjunction with Manchester Metropolitan University, focusing on educating for sustainable development in schools. “Further to my involvement in this project I entered a World Wildlife Fund competition to attend the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002,” she recalled.
“Much to my surprise, I won first prize and, as a result of this wonderful experience I began to take the whole environmental thing much more seriously.”
Woodheys gets serious
Mrs Eyden is now the Woodheys’ Environmental Projects Co-ordinator and together with the Headteacher, Laura Daniels, they have developed an energy policy for the school. This includes generating their own energy with solar panels, energy monitoring, recycling and conservation.
The exterior space has been transformed by an outdoor classroom (including a pond, wormery and insect hotel), a positive energy labyrinth, an all-weather sports pitch made from recycled tyres and wooden playground equipment.
Inside the school, the focus is on educating pupils about the environment. The children have contributed to colourful displays about global warming, energy conservation and local wildlife projects. They have also designed stickers which appear all over the school’s doors and walls, reminding staff and students how they can make a difference in simple ways. A team of pupil eco monitors ensure that electronic equipment and lights are switched off, water is not wasted and as much as possible is recycled.
“The pester power of children has really been harnessed. The kids nag the teachers and take what they have learned home, educating their parents, too. Overall, we have had very positive feedback,” said Mrs Eyden.
The Eco School Council meets at least once every half term and reports back to everyone during the school assemblies. Each representative makes sure they regularly ask their classmates for ideas, suggestions and problems to discuss at meetings. An 'Eco Suggestions Box' allows all children in the school to participate.
Since 2001, Woodheys has been flying the Eco Schools Green Flag, awarded to schools in the United Kingdom that make long-term environmental changes towards making their school more sustainable.
In June last year, the school was awarded first prize in the prestigious Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy. International environmental campaigner and former US Presidential candidate and environmental campaigner Al Gore presented the award to Head Teacher Mrs Daniels.
“At the time, I didn’t know that Woodheys had won. It was a huge publicity boost for our work and the money the school received gave us the opportunity to develop some of the projects we had planned, like our positive energy labyrinth garden,” she explained.
The garden celebrates the life of JP Joule, who lived in the Sale area and after whom the kilo joule measurement of energy was named. Information points around the garden tell pupils about JP Joule and his scientific achievements relating to energy. Inside and outside, there are solar powered water features, garden ornaments and lighting. A herb garden will form part of a sensory trail, including tactile artwork.
Mrs Daniels explained that people walk labyrinths for stress relief, pain and anger management as well as to promote focus and for meditation. “It’s especially good for children, enabling them to do better at school and develop their latent talents,” she said.
From school to community
Since winning the Ashden Award, the impact on pupils, parents and the neighbourhood has been considerable, says Mrs Daniels. “The state of our earth is in the balance. As educators, we have a responsibility to foster caring children – and that means caring for our environment, too. All the world’s major faiths believe this and we can harness this interfaith commitment, too. The children are taking this message home and into the community.”
This concept of caring is central to Woodheys’ philosophy that ‘every child matters’. Mrs Daniels says that she believes it is important to reach out to children of all faiths and those growing up in different circumstances. “They can learn from each other. They all have something to contribute,” she explained.
Twinning with Africa
In 2004, the school joined forces with two very different schools in Durban, South Africa, through ‘Afritwin’, a project which links schools in the UK and Africa. “We share experiences and ideas and are able to show our children about what the kids are good at in South Africa. They are fascinated by the African children’s intricate beadwork and watching videos of their wonderful dancing and singing.”
The joy of this exchange was that the two South African schools were really worlds apart themselves. One is an affluent private school, the other a very poor township school. They existed about a mile away from each other, but were not aware of each other. Now the schools work together, sharing facilities and ideas.
Over 60 per cent of Commonwealth citizens are young people, who will inherit the problems of climate change and environmental degradation. In many countries and communities, its effects are already being felt, through flooding, drought and rising sea levels.
“Young people should be at the forefront of changing attitudes, particularly where it concerns their future. They care very much about the environment and about conflict issues, which impact disproportionately on their lives. These are often issues over which they have no control and increasingly, they cannot be seen in isolation,” said Mrs Daniels.
This is summed up in the school motto – TEAM – which stands for Together Everyone Achieves More.
This year’s Commonwealth theme: 'The Environment - Our Future' is an opportunity for young people to build bridges across member states on an issue that is affecting us all.