Sustainability into Schools

Three Principles for Bringing Sustainability into Schools

Four years ago, the UAE Minister for Climate Change and the Environment announced a new ‘Sustainability Champions’ initiative to inspire UAE schools about the importance of sustainable behaviours and values. More than 100 schools participated to showcase their vision for sustainability. School leadership teams will undoubtedly need to bring sustainable behaviours and values into their culture, operations and curriculum. How should they approach it? Here are three principles for tackling sustainability in schools.

1. Focus: deliver impact that makes sense.

All over the world, school students have been boycotting school to ‘strike for the climate and to combat plastic pollution. A teacher based in Ras Al Khaimah told me how her students are encouraging one another to write notes on used activity sheets before recycling it. This grass roots student effort to tackle plastics, waste and climate change is inspirational. However, leadership teams should be aware that sustainability encompasses many other areas.

Sustainability is often defined through the lens of the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which represent a globally agreed vision for achieving sustainability by 2030. The SDGs encompass 17 specific yet interconnected goals such as gender equality (goal number 5) to climate change (goal 13), responsible production and consumption (goal 12), and good health and wellbeing (goal 3). Whilst students are some of society’s most committed eco-warriors, they themselves need nurturing and their own sustainable development to flourish into healthy adults. Schools play a critical role in delivering to the SDGs through the decisions they make in running a school and developing their young people.

A sustainability strategy needs to consider – from all the SDG areas – what the school can and should deliver for its key stakeholders: students, parents, communities, local environments and supplier partners (e.g. food providers, uniform outfitters, transportation services). Private businesses often carry out a ‘materiality’ exercise to assess and evaluate where they have the greatest responsibility to deliver change. Through this, they assess and prioritise the issues which are most important both in the eyes of their stakeholders and for business longevity. Some examples of key potential issues for schools could include student health and wellbeing, reducing food waste, improving energy and water efficiency, reviewing supplier partnerships for ethical and sustainable practices and educating students on production practices. 

Many companies aim to deliver their sustainability goals through the organisation as a collective of individuals rather than just ‘top-down’, which is often termed as ‘embedding’ sustainability into company culture. For schools, this embedding can become a part of education, extra-curricular activities and values-development. Helping children understand the SDGs and their local and global context would be an excellent way to initiate their sustainability education.

2. Approach sustainability holistically and think in ‘systems’.

Ask any sustainability professional and they’ll tell you that solutions need to be considered in the context of interconnected systems. The key idea is that causes and effects – inputs and outputs – are rarely linear and siloed but are all interconnected. If for example, a new species is introduced into an ecosystem, it can have the unintended consequence of altering a range of eco-system relationships through knock-on effects that change the overall nature of the system. Think about the ecological damage that can occur when a non-native species is introduced to control pests without taking other system links into consideration (the damage inflicted by the Cane Toad in Australia is a famous example). 

If a school wants to deliver change in one area, then it needs to think about this issue as part of an interrelated system. Jamie Oliver started his famous Healthy School Dinners campaign in 2003 to tackle malnutrition and childhood obesity in the UK. He addressed what he saw as the source of the problem: the poor nutritional value of school meals. However, reflecting 10 years later on why the project failed to revolutionise school food, Oliver admits that there were areas beyond the realm of the school canteen that he didn’t consider, such as the school tuck shop selling sugary sweets and fast-food advertising visible to kids just outside the school gates. He is now focusing on delivering change in schools more broadly through a healthy schools rating system: “and this time, it’s not just about school dinners, it’s about everything inside the school gates”.

3. Embrace critical thinking and creativity.

“How was this made? Why do we buy this? Why do we make these choices?” 

Children are the most curious and honest members of society, and it is these qualities which will be crucial for addressing our sustainability challenges. A curious, critical engagement with ‘the way things are’, and ‘why this is the case’, is essential for gaining a deeper understanding of the complex, embedded challenges we face. Educating children on how things are made – from their food to their clothing – is a good starting point for helping them engage with the world around them. Similarly, helping students understand their individual, community and global contexts can help them ask meaningful questions about causes and effects.

It is widely accepted that there are no silver bullets or perfect solutions to our global and local sustainability challenges. The reality of developing solutions is messy, imperfect and there will be compromises and trade-offs. The more schools set an example of trialing, testing, learning, and adapting, the more they will have a positive influence on the values of tomorrow’s leaders. Freeing children of black-and-white answers and outcomes – enabling them to embrace and practice their creativity will be a key skill for children’s own sustainable development.