Climate action

Taking responsibility for sustainability as a school

Noah Shawcross looks at how West Buckland School in the UK has taken action as a whole community after a student presentation to the SLT.

2020: a historic moment for our school?

In 2020, something rather important happened at West Buckland School, something which may well prove to be an important milestone in the school’s history. Students made a presentation to the Senior Leadership Team with a number of objectives. They wanted the school to insert a reference to sustainability in the school’s aims and ethos and wished the school to develop a sustainability strategy for the whole community. Moreover, they wanted a member of SLT, supported by a school prefect, to be assigned responsibility for delivering this strategy.

If ever there was a group of young people speaking on behalf of their generation about both their concerns and their hopes – here they were. They were confident in what they had to say and they were confident that they would be listened to. They knew the climate clock was ticking.

A year earlier

How had they arrived at this point? It was just over a year earlier in 2019 when WEBS (West Buckland Environment and Biodiversity Society) was founded by a group of students in the Sixth Form. The aim of the group was to improve environmental stewardship and sustainability. Their goal was to make a positive impact on our local community and the planet by engaging in various eco-friendly initiatives.

Through activities such as tree planting, wildflower meadow establishment, and vegetable gardening, activities which themselves had been gathering momentum, they aimed to enhance biodiversity and promote a greener environment. The Society gave real impetus to this work, which was to encompass a wider range of initiatives for food waste management, recycling and conservation reflecting that aim to reducing the school’s ecological footprint.

 

By collaborating with organisations like The Devon Wildlife Trust and participating in initiatives like the Wildlife Champions program, WEBS sought to amplify their impact and inspire others to join them in protecting our natural world. Their projects not only benefitted the environment, but also fostered a sense of responsibility and empowerment among students, as they equipped themselves with the knowledge and skills to become sustainability leaders in their communities. And then they spoke up. And they were listened to.

An evolving community

Moved by the case these young people presented, it is not going too far to suggest that the school community – the governing body, the SLT, staff, parents and of course students – became conscious of a significant development in the school’s purpose as sustainability became part of the way they planned, budgeted, taught and learned.

What has this meant in practice? Well, amongst other things:

Tree planting and wildflower meadow establishment

We partnered with organisations like the Woodland Trust to plant 600 trees in 2023 (over 4000 trees in the last 10 years) and created a 22-acre wildflower meadow, enriching biodiversity and promoting habitat restoration. In 2021 West Buckland School WEBS (West Buckland Ecology and Biodiversity) group, won the 2021 UNESCO North Devon Biosphere ‘Pledge for Nature’ award for their fantastic work developing wildflower meadows and planting over 500 trees in the past two years. This was a whole school project involving students from the Prep school to Year 13. We were also working with an organisation called rePLANET to develop a pilot study with the aim of quantifying the biodiversity uplift, by creating a habitat map of the school site using DNA barcoding and surveying flora and fauna. This is such an exciting project and we’re delighted that the whole school can have an opportunity to get involved. We also owe so much to Angus Calder, Assistant Head in charge of pupil development, Baz our Head Groundsman and the hard-working ground staff who have supported us throughout.

Vegetable gardening and floral projects

Through our Queen Elizabeth II (QEII) project, students dedicated over 300 hours in 2023-24 to cultivating vegetable and flower gardens, yielding successful harvests. Additionally, we initiated a Floral Project to grow cut flowers for local nursing homes, fostering community connections whilst providing food for pollinators and attractive space in which to relax.

Food waste management and cecycling

We actively engaged students in managing food waste through programs like WEBS and Eco-committee meetings, promoting responsible consumption habits. Our Recycling Club facilitated upcycling of clothing, reducing waste and promoting sustainability.

Conservation Club and wildlife champions initiative

The Conservation Club, involving students from various year levels, undertook conservation projects such as building nest boxes and planting wildflowers. Collaboration with The Devon Wildlife Trust on the Wildlife Champions initiative furthered our conservation efforts and raised awareness about environmental issues.

Educational Initiatives and collaborations

We organized educational events such as a World Book Day Book swap and a Teams Q&A with a Marine conservationist, fostering environmental awareness and knowledge sharing. Collaborating with organizations like SW Water and The Two Minute Foundation further enriched our initiatives. Our senior school students have worked closely with the children in our prep school towards developing project collaboration.

Power generation and net-zero target

We are pleased with the breadth and depth of these activities, but, satisfying as they are, they are perhaps only symptomatic of how the whole school has come to think and act as a community. Our school’s sustainability project hit a major milestone with the installation of 850 solar panels at the end of 2023. These are linked by over 6 kilometres of cabling to our mains supply. And now this new array is set to produce up to 30% of our school’s energy needs at peak times. With the installation of a biomass woodchip boiler, we have already freed ourselves of our dependence on fossil fuels burned onsite.

All of this required strategic planning and capital investment at the very top, but perhaps the most important thing is that these initiatives are now just seen as ‘normal’. Young people leaving West Buckland will expect to see these standards in practice where they study and where they work in future.

Impact

The benefits to the students have been multifaceted and tangible.

1. Hands-on learning

Engaging in tree planting, gardening, and conservation activities provides students with practical, experiential learning opportunities, enhancing their understanding of environmental concepts and fostering a sense of responsibility towards nature.

2. Leadership and collaboration

Participation in the Eco Council, Conservation Club, and other eco-friendly projects offered students leadership opportunities and encouraged collaborative problem-solving, empowering them to take ownership of sustainability initiatives and develop essential teamwork skills.

3. Environmental awareness

Through educational events, discussions, and partnerships with environmental organisations, students gained a deeper awareness of environmental issues and the importance of conservation efforts, equipping them with the knowledge to become informed advocates for sustainability.

Through projects like building nest boxes (red mason bee, flycatcher, dormouse and robin) and planting wildflowers, students actively contributed to biodiversity conservation efforts. The increase in biodiversity and the establishment of habitats for various species serve as concrete evidence of the effectiveness of our conservation initiatives. And now we are studying this.

4. Community Engagement

Involvement in projects like the Floral Project, Devon Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife Champions scheme fosters meaningful connections with the local community and a sense of civic responsibility and demonstrates the impact of individual actions on broader environmental goals.

Recognition

Even though we can honestly say that this is not why people are doing this work, it is nice for it to be recognised for what we have achieved: over the last 5 years we have been recognised by the UNESCO North Devon Biosphere reserve as well as being awarded the Eco School Green Flag certification. Eco-Schools England Manager, Adam Flint, said:

“Earning an Eco-Schools Green Flag Award takes passion, commitment and a desire to make a difference. Pupils should be proud of their great work. They’re an inspiration and it makes us feel heartened and positive about the future of our planet.”

And, finally, the school is now working with 361 Energy to get an overview of our carbon footprint so we can refine our sustainability action plan.

Ending where the story began, this initiative is also student led.

 

Noah Shawcross, Head of Biology at West Buckland School

Noah studied biology at the University of Bristol and then spent 8 years teaching in London before relocating to the beautiful countryside of Devon in pursuit of the “Good Life”.
He co-founded WEBS in 2019 with his students, although his involvement in conservation and biodiversity began much earlier. As a member of the Devon Wildlife Trust and actively involved in the charity Butterfly Conservation, he is dedicated to protecting and preserving our natural environment.

Thank you to Noah and West Buckland School for providing the images used in this article.

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