Keep it Up!

Education is not a closed system. Just as a school is a microcosm of the area it serves, expressed through the characters and values of the adults and young who comprise it, the education system as a whole reflects the societal values upon which it was founded. In the case of Britain, the noble desire for universal education was expressed early, though it was always compromised by the ability of those with money to buy themselves out of the collective endeavour and away from the less pleasant experiences of life alongside the hoi polloi.

In more recent times, those values have been compromised further by the narrowing of societal aspirations towards purely material gain, in a way those early ideals never intended. There have been reports in the past week that the global environmental emergency is accelerating, and it may result in worse catastrophes even than have been hitherto imagined. Yet attempts to alter our way of life have been particularly slow and piecemeal in the U.K. We have not even managed to bring our air pollution within EU limits. This is perhaps not surprising given the scale of the task – but I am left wondering whether we in education are doing what we ought, and cultivating the appropriate attitudes in the coming generations.

The current topic for my Year Sevens is Sustainability – but when I introduced the topic and took a poll of attitudes, class after class struggled to show any more than lukewarm concern; this represents a noticeable deterioration over the last ten or so years. Pupils were more concerned with being able to continue what they accepted were high-consumption lifestyles. To say this was depressing is an understatement, but then I reflected further on a topic that has been at the back of my mind for some time: such attitudes perhaps aren’t really surprising when we don’t even set suitable role models in schools – the very places where society attempts to transmit its shared values to new generations. We can try to ‘teach’ these things in class until we are blue in the face – but despite my reasonably good track record at home, how can I stand in front of a class and champion sustainable living when the school they are sitting in struggles even to maintain a workable paper recycling scheme? This is an issue as much taught by example as anything, and we are hardly in a position to criticise, when the education system itself seems to set such little store by the matter. Public institutions of all sorts should be setting the example on this matter – schools most of all.

There is a complex interaction of issues here: the few past attempts to improve recycling all failed because the economics were unfavourable or because certain key individuals moved on. Our present new-build is indeed going to be a more efficient building, but mainly because it wouldn’t have got planning permission otherwise. But how much of the real problem is actually just in people’s heads? When the heat is on to deliver results, it isn’t entirely surprising if school managements don’t have much attention left for fuzzy matters like sustainability. And in this, we have a perfect example of how recent pressures have narrowed perspectives and distorted the priorities of schools: it is surely more important to instil good environmental stewardship in our pupils than to squeeze the last ‘n’th percentage point out of our A*-Cs. Yet the latter is where the effort goes – and hang the impact of all that extra photocopying. I doubt it’s even thought of in that way.

The emphasis on technical teaching in recent years has vastly increased the resource-intensity of the average lesson – the worksheets, card-sorts and the rest have caused the paper consumption to rocket. Wider availability of photocopiers, let alone computer printers has compounded this. It is no longer acceptable for the only resource required for a lesson to enter the room on his or her own two legs. (I wonder how many teachers these days actually retain the ability to teach resource-free in any case…) However, the situation is more complicated than it might first appear: for example, have thousands of PC projectors increased energy use, or simply offset other resource consumption?

Some of these issues are quite intractable, but others could be dealt with easily – for example, by ensuring that all external doors are self-closing. The amount of heat that simply escapes to the atmosphere through gaping doors in winter beggars belief – and in this case at least, I would have thought there was also an economic incentive for change, given the way energy costs are going. Another quick win could be switching to recycled paper. Of the couple of million sheets consumed annually in my school, as far as I know none is of recycled origin; in our Swiss partner school, it all is. Britain’s recycling rate is in the forties percent; Switzerland’s is nearer 80. Oh, and they have recycling receptacles like this one in their refectory, and elsewhere around the school:


Our catering manager recently told me that it was too complicated to provide the equivalent here – and in any case, no one was prepared to underwrite the cost.

But it is not only physical resources that are at issue. Our education system has fully caught the consumption-is-good mentality. While it may be true that in my Affluenza-riddled corner of the Home Counties materialistic values are more prevalent than average, the general message of modern education seems to revolve around the salary one might eventually expect – with its associated implications of further consumption.

And the school itself voraciously consumes for short-term gain without heed to the longer term. Quite apart from the paper, I’m thinking of ‘human resources’. My parents did their teaching from the early 1960’s to the early 1990’s; even then, they were convinced the job was taking a toll on their long-term health. These days the pressures are vastly greater, and yet we continue to expect staff – especially the energetic young ones – to work crazy hours to fulfil unsustainable (and questionable) targets. The notion of what is ‘enough’ never figures.

What will be the long term impact on the education system if we burn-out so many people before their time? And even if there are others willing to take their place, do we really want to perpetuate that kind of professional experience? Will it ultimately further children’s education, let alone send a helpful message to them about the effects of working life? It is all the more ironic as the wealth gap grows, and the promised rewards for the hard work become available only to a smaller and smaller minority, that this remains our implied priority.

Time is as much a finite resource as any other; the recent drive for increased marking, for instance, is clearly having repercussions, most notably on lesson preparation time. We also need to remember that such things have a cumulative effect: it seems that a growing number of my colleagues are increasingly realising that recent demands simply aren’t sustainable, even in the medium term. It is sometimes possible to mortgage yourself in the short term for the sake of greater benefits later – but cumulative exhaustion simply leads to less effective teachers and learners – and there are no benefits at all in that.

It seems that British society – even through its education system – is saying that it cares little for the longer term future, so long as we can Have It All Now. We have yet to learn that when you are already taking 100%, you simply cannot take yet more without something eventually ‘giving’ somewhere else. In a multitude of ways, the effects don’t bear thinking about.


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