The Sustainable School

For thirty years Environmental Education (EE) has been the main vehicle for raising the environmental awareness of students and seeking to change their attitudes and behaviors in relation to the environment. The school was one setting for environmental education with school, teachers the main facilitators of attitudes and behavior change. The policy of the education system was however somewhat ambiguous towards environmental education programs that schools were implementing.

A number of authors have reported on the intrinsic and acquired problems of environmental education in Greece (Flogaitis, 1993, Kalaitzidis, 2000), problems that have prevented it from realizing the results that were theoretically possible. Greek schools have features that are not consistent with the principles of sustainability (Papadimitriou, 2010) and in order for the school to be a significant agent in moving society towards sustainability, it has to be the very object of this change (Orr, 1992, Sterling 2002). The introduction of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) (Skoullos, 1995, Papadimitriou, 1998), which is considered the successor of Environmental Education, accentuated this failure due to the higher requirements of this new kind of education (Papadimitriou, 2010).

Specific issues and topics, that differentiate ESD from EE, are (UNECE 2005): sustainable water management, health promotion, agriculture, urban development, consumption, justice, governance, tourism, human rights, cultural diversity, media ethics, new technologies, poverty, gender equality, intercultural understanding and cultural diversity. The theory and practice of ESD suggests that the participation of the whole school community to promote sustainability is necessary and consequently it adopts a “whole school approach (Henderson, 2004, Gough, 2005). Many countries have adopted the ‘sustainable school’ as a policy goal, such as the United Kingdom (Huckle, 2009), Sweden (Green School Award), Australia (Henderson, 2004) etc. Indeed, the United Kingdom’s New Labour Government (1997 – 2010) set a target that by 2020 all schools in the country would become sustainable schools.

The former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair promised that: “Sustainable development will not just be a subject in the classroom: it will be in its bricks and mortar and the way the school uses and even generates its own power. Our students won’t just be told about sustainable development, they will see and work within it: a living, learning place in which to explore what a sustainable lifestyle means” (quoted in Huckle, 2010, p. 00). The experiments of the 19th and 20th centuries produced progressive schools that had advantages in relation to sustainability (for example the freedom and self-management experienced by pupils at Summerhill School in England), and such schools had some impact on mainstream schools. Progressive schools resulted from and inspired people of educational vision and included such innovations as the active participation of students in learning process, the cooperative approach to learning, the democratic functioning of the school leadership, the partial to the overall management of the teaching time at the school level, etc. The limits of reform were and are however shaped by the dominant educational paradigm, which reflects prevailing structures of economic and political power.


The sustainable school can be viewed as one element of a future utopian sustainable society. The basic idea of ​​the “Sustainable School” is the integration of sustainability in every aspect of school life, namely the administration, the learning process, management of buildings, transportation to and from school, the school’s relationship with the school community (Huckle, 2010). The management of the school reflects and reinforces what students learn in the classrooms through the ways in which it runs the campus (use of energy and water, transport and travel, food, etc) and at the same time such learning is further strengthened by the ways in which the school and its students learn alongside local and more distant communities. The active involvement of students and staff in reflecting and acting on sustainability themes creates a sense of responsibility which in turn is transferred to the interactions between the school and the wider community (Living Sustainably, 2009). To facilitate discussion, we can classify the characteristics of sustainable school into three general categories or three levels of organization (Papadimitriou, 2010): the pedagogic (curriculum, school culture and teaching and learning process), social and organizational (organization, administration, relations with the wider community and other bodies) and the environmental-technical-economic (school environment, buildings, yard). Let’s look in more detail each of these levels.

The “sustainable school” label covers a range of variants on the light green to dark green spectrum that ranges from conservative (light green) to radical (dark green). At the light green end the school will be adopting environmentally friendly measures such as recycling and energy saving (ecological modernization, faith to solutions deriving from technology, doing more with less) that offer no real challenge to and even support the status quo. At the dark green end, the school will be adopting a holistic approach to sustainability, including challenging the dominant production and consumption patterns, the dominant values of the consumer society, the dominant distribution of power and financial resources, while at the same time, challenging the dominant schooling values. The dark green approach implies a more thorough reform or radical change of both environmental and social interactions in the school, allowing students and teaches a more democratic process of decision making. The current UK government has taken down the webpage that set out the guidance on the previous government’s sustainable schools policy. Eco-schools (managed and promoted by the NGO Keep Britain Tidy) is now the main vehicle encouraging more sustainable schooling in the UK.

The pedagogical domain

The sustainable school has definitively rejected teacher-centered approaches to learning. It adopts participatory and student-centered approaches that develop students’ skills, abilities and qualities for critical thinking, intercultural understanding and acceptance, and willingness to participate. These are key attributes of active citizenship. Team teaching around issue-based topics is the pedagogy best suited to sustainable schools. Active student participation in the planning of the lesson, the teacher’s function as coordinator of the discovery of new knowledge by the students themselves, abandoning the role of transmitter of knowledge from teacher to student, the introduction of new technological innovations in the learning process, are all aspects of sustainable school, which relate to improving the conditions of the learning process, while improving the overall functioning of the school. Principles of EE and ESD should be integrated into all aspects of the curriculum (UNECE 2005). The hidden curriculum teaches students much about sustainability through the day-to-day, taken for granted relations between people and between people, energy, materials, and plants/animals on the school campus. It is the lubricant that can make relationships genuinely sustainable with the school more productive, the image of the school attractive to parents and others, the teachers feel good with each other and also with the school administration and students.  An aspect of this hidden curriculum is certainly the optional school activities, the resulting products of these activities, the reduction or elimination of punishments, the reduction of vandalism incidents at school, the reduction of violence in and around the school, greater desire to participate in educational field trips, the increase in books borrowed from the school library, etc.

The social and organizational domain

The social and organizational domain includes the school relations with the local community, local government, relations with parents etc. The administration must put sustainability at the heart of school design and everyday practice. The sustainable school adopts the democratic and participatory process of decision-making.  A proper atmosphere of cooperation should be established so that the school generates improvement plans and undertakes the relevant actions to implement the plans and achieve the goals. The democratic operation best fits the sustainable school, from the administration to the function of student councils. Democracy means that decisions are taken with consultation and discussion within democratic and transparent procedures. The decisions taken with democratic procedures are respected by all members of the School Community. Parents participate in school life and support the school in a variety of ways without interfering with its operation. Local government has an important role in school life as it distributes the annual grant, is responsible for repairs and improvements of school buildings, and by supports a variety of school activities, taking advantage of school programs to educate and enlighten local citizens, etc. But even more important is the democratic functioning of the teachers’ assembly (staff meeting) in each school, as its decisions largely determine the nature of school life. The number and nature of punishments, incidents of vandalism, the climate in the classroom, etc. appear on the agenda of the teachers’ assembly, making its role crucial for the school function.

The environmental-economic-technical domain

According to surveys (Santamouris, 2008), 40% of energy consumption in Europe goes to buildings (in Greece 30%). The school buildings in particular, are very costly in terms of heating, because none of them was built according to the principles of green building and bioclimatic architecture. The schools are very expensive organizations in energy and water. Large windows with single glazing and iron manufacture, often need to be ventilated (open windows and doors), the use of electricity for lighting, etc., make the schools costly and wasteful of energy. Besides energy, paper consumption is also booming. Everyday tests, June school test, University entry competitions, school notebooks, at least 25 textbooks per student each year (excluding teachers’ books), sum up a huge amount of paper used at school every year. Only an insignificant percentage of this paper ends up in paper recycling. For all these reasons, schools are organizations which produce waste and consume significant quantities of electricity, contributing to global warming. The contribution of schools to increase greenhouse gas emissions could also include the consumption of fuel to transport children to school in their parents’ car. Changing the way children travel to school in order to reduce exhaust emissions and greenhouse gases is also among the objectives of sustainable school. The impact of the school is not confined within the narrow limits of its campus, but extends to the broader social environment and affects a substantial part of society.

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