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Green schools gather momentum but are they here to stay?

green schools
An example of the bamboo classrooms at Green School's Bali campus. Source: Green School

Eco Schools first took off in the early 90s to tackle the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They have taken on several different forms over the last few years, with many now called green schools or sustainable schools and the definition of them broadening with it. 

According to Eco Schools, registered green schools now feature in 68 countries. Involving over 59,000 schools far and wide, including Brazil, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Mexico, Namibia, Mongolia and South Korea. 

Rising to the challenge

In Hong Kong, currently 60 percent of primary and secondary schools now belong to The Green School Network since its conception in 2001. While Chinese green schools such as the Independent Schools Foundation Academy and the Chinese Foundation Secondary School have gained international recognition for their unique focus on sustainable development. 

Private environmentally-conscious school groups such as Green School International are also expanding. The group’s first Green School in Bali caught much media attention with its 22 metre bamboo bridge and abundant green surroundings. 

This month, the group opened another Green School in New Zealand and has two more planned to open in 2021 – in South Africa and Mexico. An average day at these schools include developing a renewable energy system to government lobbying while traditional subjects are blended with enterprise and environmental studies. 

green schools

The learning pod at Green School New Zealand. Source: Green School

The African continent has also awoken to the benefits of green schools to answer real-world environmental challenges, with schools such as Uaso Nyiro Primary in Kenya integrating subjects such as regenerative agriculture and water harvesting.  

But to some, considering the environment or even a green school can seem like a political act or an alternative choice. While others argue environmental education to be a nonpartisan value that requires a central place in education at all levels. 

So, what is a green school really and how can it be easily defined? 

The Leading Sustainable Schools report, authored by Professor Alma Harris of the Specialist School and Academies Trust, broadly cites green schools as beginning with a clear moral purpose. 

“This moral purpose aligns to the need to preserve, protect and support the environment, as a living system, from the damage caused by modern living. Sustainable schools combine deep moral purpose with a central focus on learning. Sustainable schools put learning first but locate this learning within a sustainable development framework,’ it says.

Why green schools?

By and large, the demand for green schools has been driven by students and parents. Despite fees for green schools such as the newest one in New Zealand charging up to US$27,563.43 a year for international students, according to The PIE News.

An NUS and Green School Project survey reveals that 68 percent of students would like to learn more about the environment at school, with only four percent stating they were well-informed about climate change. 

“The value of attending a Green School cannot be quantified. It needs to be experienced and embodied,” says Head of Green Studies at Green School Bali, Dr Nicolene du Preez.

“As the curriculum comes alive, it unfolds a deeper ability to plan for the unexpected, to co-discover something new and become more effective at building on what is already known.” 

Environmental education has been a leading concern for teachers and staff too, both at K12 and university level. In fact, a recent NUS survey conducted with 566 university, college and student union staff reveals that 93 percent of respondents think students should leave their time in formal education with the skills required to address sustainability challenges. 

And, when asked about SDGs, 83 percent of respondents agreed that post-16 education was vital to achieving them by 2030. 

“I’m a big fan of green schools because it offers a livelier learning environment for all kinds of personalities and different ways of learning,” enthuses Stuttgart-based green educator, Lisa Langosch.

But are green schools a trend that is here to stay? 

“Educating and preparing a world of sustainable leaders is not a trend, it has become a vital necessity in the 21st century,” adds Preez.

green schools

Opening day at Green School New Zealand. Source: Green School

While the principle of green schools seems widely perceived as beneficial, there are some concerns that they could remain niche and excuse or deter general education institutions from needing to adopt and embrace environment studies as a whole.

Nina Hatch and William Scott of the UK’s National Association for Environmental Education for instance, view environmental education as a student entitlement:

“We are not enthusiastic about the idea of a green school as we think all schools should in this sense be green. All schools should enable young people to learn about the natural world. The benefits of such an education would include an understanding of how the natural world functions. An awareness of our responsibilities and willingness to act and review how this might most effectively be done. 

“Doing this will help prepare young people to play their part in facing up to and helping to deal with what is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced.” 

As a teacher, Langosch knows all too well that some schools have been slow to adopt a green agenda and so recognises the value of green schools. 

“I’d rather regular schools simply integrate environmental education into their curriculum. At the same time, I know the difficulties teachers have in trying to make a change within the existing education structures. So, these sorts of green school islands have their right to exist in order to function as pioneers and illustrate the benefits that an environmental education can bring,” she adds. 

Educating with purpose

Another subject for debate has been what a green curriculum should involve and there is still work to do on enhancing the impact of these schools.

Richard Dawson, director at Wild Awake –  a social enterprise helping to reconnect young people with nature asserts: “All schools and curricula should prepare their learners to flourish in a world where we are totally dependent on the natural world. There cannot be a green curriculum which sits alongside another one – it’s counter-intuitive. The development of various green curricula over the years has raised the profile of sustainability education, but these should only be seen as prototypes.”

“Sadly, there seems to be a tendency to tick the green curriculum box and then move on without realising this is just the first step. Despite the improvements sustainability education and green curricula have brought, the general trend in schools still seems didactic and workplace-focused.”

Ben Ballin, a project worker for Change the Story at Wild-Awake, hopes to change the narrative on climate education by assisting young people to investigate, share and create their own solutions. 

“The key difference between a ‘green curriculum’ and any other is not so much the content but its purpose,” adds Ballin. 

“A focus on sustainability brings the world into a curriculum and offers a clear focus for learning and a real-world reason for children to find out, talk, write, read, use digital tools and so forth. As it happens, there is evidence that such real-world learning, in affording children a clear context in which to apply meaningful knowledge and skills, can also enhance traditional learning outcomes.”

Where next?

Higher education institutions such as Gaia University and the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, UK are providing more undergraduate and adult courses for students interested in solving sustainability challenges. 

Unlike green schools, however, specialist HE institutions in this area are minimal. 

With the steady growth of green schools, continuing education in this field will need to be urgently addressed whether that be by specialist and/or traditional universities. 

As the green school trend looks here to stay, it will be interesting to see how universities and colleges respond to the fast-changing demands of their students.

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