Sustainability: Small steps, big changes

In my first assembly of this term, back in January, I took the opportunity to remind pupils of our whole school target for the year, which is to ensure that the Schools’ operations and the actions of individuals are as environmentally friendly as possible. 

The assembly focused on the work of Pat Smith who, inspired by David Attenborough’s documentaries, worked with a group of friends to persuade retail outlets in her home county of Cornwall to discontinue the use of plastic straws: so successful was her campaign - imaginatively titled ‘the last straw’ - that her group were able to move on from their first objective to work on reducing the use of single use plastic cups in the county. Whilst the campaign was impressive in its own right, the key message of the assembly lay in Pat Smith’s motivation. Inspired by Attenborough’s programme, she looked afresh at the litter strewn beaches of Cornwall and reflected: 

“I always wondered why someone didn’t do something about that! Then I realised: I am somebody!”

The environmentalist cause is by no means uncontroversial. Whilst outright climate change denial is much less prevalent (with some notable exceptions!), the solutions are not quite so clear. During the Schools’ recent focus on eco-jobs as part of the excellent work done by our careers department for National Careers Week, I found myself discussing the relative merits of paper and plastic straws with one of our guests, who made the point that the production and transport of paper straws also caused significant environmental damage. The answer, we agreed, was to avoid the use of straws entirely. 

Equally controversial are the methods employed by some of those who would encourage us to think more carefully about sustainability, the tactics employed by Extinction Rebellion being an obvious example, though even the approach of Greta Thunberg has not been without its critics: as with all campaigns, there is a balance to be struck between properly raising public awareness of a key issue on the one hand and losing public sympathy on the other.    

However, the beauty of Pat Smith’s message is that we can all do something which, whilst small in itself, might have a greater impact overall - perhaps we might all stop using straws for example. My recent request with regard to leaving engines idling over whilst outside the school gates is a further example of how something that has minimal impact on us has a significant impact on the environment: I continue to live in hope that the message will get through to every-one! 

Certainly our pupils have taken the message on board. This year has seen the Senior School Council pursue initiatives including the replacement of disposable cups used at Parents’ Evenings with ceramic ones; the removal of plastic sauce sachets in the dining hall and a commitment to getting terracycle boxes amongst others. Later this term, a trip has been planned to visit a sustainable farm that supplies the Senior Schools’ kitchen. 

Pupils have also raised funds for the World Wildlife Fund (on International Polar Bear Day) and Tree Aid as well as raising funds to help address the repercussions of bushfires in Australia. The Schools have also hosted a party of Norwegians keen to share their experiences of eco projects with us. 

In the Junior School, staff have made a concerted attempt to reduce laminating and measures have been put in place to compost fruit cores and peelings. Mr Peel’s beach cleaning party was, of course, featured on Radio Newcastle - a direct example of Pat Smith’s ideas in action.

I was also particularly taken by the prayers the Senior Schools’ Christian Union wrote for the recent Founder’s Day service: an awareness of our stewardship of the natural world - itself a gift from God - was an important part of their petitions. The pupils are acutely aware of the need to preserve what we have for future generations by ensuring that we do our best to preserve the earth’s resources so as to sustain their futures and those of their children. 

Our task as educators - and as the wider Dame Allan’s community - is to ensure that we do all we can to help them achieve that goal.