Morgan Phillips joined Green Schools Project as Associate Director and member of the advisory board in October 2016. He has great experience of environmental education from his role as Head of Eco-Schools England. He writes a regular blog and is now working freelance in this field. This is a conversation that we had for his blog.
M.P: So first up, tell me what Green Schools Project is, what’s your elevator pitch?
H.G: Green Schools Project helps schools to set up and run an environmental programme. It provides resources and support to teachers who get students involved with projects such as energy saving, recycling and starting a vegetable garden. The projects raise awareness of environmental issues and help the young people involved to build skills while taking a leading role in improving the school’s environmental performance.
That’s great, what inspired you to set it up?
The idea came from the work that I did at Kingsmead School in Enfield. I was tired and frustrated by the lack of engagement in environmental issues at the school. Windows open with the heating on in winter, lights left on everywhere, recycling boxes not emptied, and no opportunity for the students to get involved. I wondered how we could expect the young people to become environmentally responsible adults when the school set such a bad example.
So I assembled a group of Year 12 students and we carried out an energy saving campaign which saved the school over £35,000 in three years, we put students in charge of emptying recycling bins, started a vegetable garden, held walk to school weeks and installed solar panels. We were awarded an Eco-Schools Green Flag for our efforts and the whole school community got behind it. It was doing that that made me want to help other schools achieve the same.
That’s a great achievement and has been life changing for you (career changing at least). How hard a decision was it to make the leap you did and set up your own organisation?
It was difficult to leave full-time teaching as it was a job that I enjoyed and it’s been challenging to move away from the day to day involvement with students and staff. I felt that it was now or never to try the idea for Green Schools Project though, so I really wanted to see if it could be successful. I think that the potential is huge, there’s so much more that schools could be doing to help young people get involved with environmental work. Teaching will always be there if I decide to return to the classroom at some point.
So, is the aim to improve the sustainability performance of the school, or to develop sustainability knowledge, skills and values? Or, if it is both, which one do you prioritise?
I think that the two go together equally. If sustainability is valued and embedded in a school, with the students and teachers aware and knowledgeable, the performance will be better. The best way for a school to become more sustainable is to engage its students, get them to run campaigns and projects that raise awareness and this will change attitudes and behaviour amongst the rest of the students and staff.
If the school sets a good example, good sustainable behaviour will be normal and accepted amongst the students. Young people instinctively understand the importance of environmental issues, but if they’re not shown how to act on this either at home or at school they will perpetuate negative habits.
There is a very real experiential element to this, with pupils getting a lot of hands on experience of living sustainably and being actively involved in designing how they live, work, study and so on. Tell me a bit more about how a school experiences Green Schools Project, walk me through it a little bit from first contact with you to the huge improvements in sustainability performance you achieved at Kingsmead.
When a school joins Green Schools Project they get access to guides, presentations and resources that help them through the process of getting a group of students together, setting them up so that they can apply for Eco-Schools awards and helping them to get started on their projects. There are lots of ideas to choose from, and the students have the opportunity to come up with their own too. I am able to visit schools to help them with this process as well. Over the course of this year I want to make the programme more interactive, with students able to upload evidence of their progress in order to compete with other schools, encouraging each other to achieve more.
It’s still early days for Green Schools Project and change takes time, but more schools that get involved the more the benefits will be seen.
You mentioned Eco-Schools, but are there any other programmes it fits in with and do you promote these to schools?
I see Green Schools Project as a way of helping and encouraging schools through the process of becoming more sustainable. There are lots of other organisations doing great things in particular areas that I would recommend schools taking part in. The Less CO2 programme is great for reducing energy use, Solar for Schools helps schools to install solar panels, Action for Conservation helps students to get involved with wildlife conservation in their local area. When schools join Green Schools Project they get access to a noticeboard of these opportunities and more, helping to save time on researching the different possibilities on offer.
That’s great, there is so much out there for schools to choose from, or decipher, really helps if someone can help them pick the right thing and understand its value from both a learning and sustainability performance viewpoint.
Yes, I totally agree. As a teacher there’s not much spare time to research these opportunities, so I think that advice in these areas from others who have taken part is really helpful.
Thinking more widely, as I understand it you are still doing a little bit of supply teaching at the moment, what is it like being Maths teacher at the moment?
Doing some supply teaching, I still have a feel for what it’s like in schools, but it is so different from being a full-time teacher. It’s great for the flexibility but you are not involved with the important aspects in a school such as seeing the students’ progress throughout the year.
Being a Maths teacher is very challenging at the moment, it is the first year of the new GCSE in Maths, so it is very difficult to predict what will be in the exam, and what the grade boundaries will be, and so it makes it harder to prepare the students. In an environment where accountability is so high this puts great pressure on teachers and Heads of Department.
Yes, that can’t be easy, a friend of mine has been teaching Maths in Bristol for about six years, he’s decided to pack up and move to China to teach at an international school! How are things for eco-coordinators in school?
I think that it would be great if every school had an Eco-coordinator, but this is far from the case. Pressures of exam results and Ofsted inspections mean that anything outside the core curriculum is getting squeezed. Teachers have so much to do in fulfilling their core duties that it is sometimes difficult to take on other activities.
It would be amazing if that was made statutory, it might just happen, things move in cycles in education and sustainability might re-enter in a year or two. What changes in policy would you like to see to enable Green Schools Project to flourish?
The changes I would like to see from government and Ofsted is to raise the value that they place on a rounded education that is not just about the grades that they achieve at the end. Participation in music, drama, sport, and the opportunity to get involved with environmental projects for example are highly valuable for students to build the skills that are required for their wellbeing and employment.
What are your plans for the rest of this academic year and what should teachers who are interested do next to get involved?
Green Schools Project is still quite young, so there is a focus on attracting more schools and starting to work with Primary schools as well as Secondaries. I am working with an ex-Primary School teacher to adapt the programme for younger students. The first stage is almost ready to go, so I am hoping that some Primary schools will come on board this academic year, with the full programme ready in September. We are also looking to raise external funding that will allow the team to grow.