Sustainability in education – It’s about more than birds, bees and trees.

imagesFollowing a long Summer’s break, where much of the academic focus tends to be on individual reading and catching up on the latest ideas and developments, coming back to more collegiate work practices can be a challenge.

Fortunately though, some practices can really re-energize teams so that there is renewed enthusiasm for engaging positively with others and so smoothing the road for the academic year ahead. Recently, I was inspired having attended a rewarding full staff professional development event at the school where I am chair of governors. The headteacher, who has been in situ now for eight months, arranged with the senior leadership team to lead on a full morning’s activities aimed at reviewing the school’s mission and vision.

Because the head teacher had invited all stakeholders to attend this significant event the school’s hall was packed to capacity and there was a palpable air of enthusiasm and purpose. Teachers mingled with parents, teaching assistants, those in charge of the school grounds and school governors.

Our headteacher Ed, first shared why it was important to review the vision and mission of the school. He identified that as a result of the changing external and internal environments it was imperative to review current practices and the values underpinning them. Of particular import was the current and projected growth in the numbers of children attending the school. Allied to this was a noticeable shift in school demographics of this special school. Growing numbers of children attending the early years setting had been identified as being autistic. These factors, among others, meant it was important to plan for future social and pedagogical experiences for all children at the school.

An engaging attribute of the morning’s experience was the dynamic and interactive nature of the facilitated small group sessions aimed at encouraging reflection on key values and principles. Diverse groups representing all stakeholders were encouraged to identify core aspects of their future vision for the school. Within my own group, one of the participants had responsibility for teaching of outdoor education. The school is fortunate to have a wonderful sensory garden and a small woodlands area where glimpses of the wonders of the wider world outside of the classroom can be incorporated into the learning.

This teacher was passionate about the need to posit the concept of sustainability at the heart of the learning process. His passion was infectious and convincing. I was struck at the time about the relevance of his argument that sustainability could form an important strand of learning, not only for the children within the school, but also for the teachers who might learn how to become more socially responsible through a focus on issues of sustainability.

On reflection, following the event, I began to realize the wider significance of this teacher’s observations about the centrality of sustainability for learning and teaching in a special school and its wider implications for education more generally. At its core, sustainability involves the relationship between children and their environment. In many instances, whilst there should necessarily be a strong focus on academic achievement, for children with special educational needs there is perhaps a more fundamental requirement to enable these children to author their own interrelationships with the outside world. The natural environment offers a wealth of opportunities to facilitate this exploration and authorship. This is especially the case for children who are identified as being on the autistic spectrum.

In this context, sustainability is more than admiring the wonders of nature, reflected in the birds, the bees and trees, it is more a way of reinterpreting our values as educators so that what is important for children comes to the fore. It is a questioning about the efficacy of the competitive and individualistic curriculum as experienced in mainstream schools and its applicability to special school settings. It is an awaking to the potential for opening up the classroom to the world beyond and for enabling children to chart their personal learning journeys in ways that are more meaningful for future fulfilled lives. The concept of sustainability is also a challenge to teachers to challenge themselves and to engage more meaningfully in the longer terms responsibilities of the profession. It involves collegiate discussion and questioning about the relevance and future applicability about what happens inside and beyond the classroom.

In the space of a few hours, through creative and innovative professional development, honed by the art of the ‘letting go’, this professional development session inspired me to review and reinvigorate my own practices. Through dialogue and interaction, all present were able to contribute to mapping the school’s journey for the years ahead. When all have had opportunities to chart the future direction, there is a better shared sense as to where everyone needs to go. What an energizing and sustainable way this was to recommence meaningful interactions with children, colleagues and the wider world.