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Eco schools - how sustainability can fuel progress

October 12, 2022, 11:58 GMT+1
Read in 9 minutes
  • A love and respect for nature flows through Gagle Brook Primary School – from the design of the buildings to the curriculum – finds Dorothy Lepkowska
Eco schools - how sustainability can fuel progress

There is noticeable peace and tranquility around Gagle Brook Primary, despite this being a normal school day. It could be because the Oxfordshire school is currently only populated up to Year 3 and some classes are still waiting to be filled with the joyful sounds of children learning.

Or perhaps it’s because it is a lovely warm day in early summer and most pupils are doing activities outside. But it could also be the environment in which these students and teachers go about their teaching and learning. The innovatively designed buildings make Gagle Brook a one-off ecologically speaking. 

Regardless, there is a sense of purpose here underpinned by an evolving curriculum that is strongly focused on a love and respect for nature, awareness of local ecology, and a deep understanding of the challenges facing the planet.

Gagle Brook is situated on Elmsbrook, the UK’s first ‘eco-town’ – a sprawling zero-carbon housing development being built on former farmland in Bicester. The school opened in 2018 with just the nursery and reception class, and by the time it reaches capacity in two years’ time, it will have 210 pupils.

“The driver here is the environment and sustainability and we are all on an exciting journey which is guided by that,” says Emily Holloway, the headteacher. “Our curriculum has four main streams – enquiring minds, rich vocabulary, knowledge and skills and the One Planet Principles.

“The last one is particularly important and encapsulates 10 points that are threaded through our curriculum, so we live and breathe these in our learning and in the children’s play.”

Enquiring minds

Staff at Gagle Brook believe that children should be able to talk and question their learning, to express and encourage their curiosity about the world, and to have an opinion.

Lessons often begin with a quiz to recap on previous learning and to help children to understand what they’ve already covered, to give context to what’s to come.

“Teachers model enquiry and the language that is needed to the children so that they become effective at doing this themselves,” explains Matt Street, Year 3 teacher and sustainability lead.

“We celebrate this in every class and if a child is seen to be using their enquiring mind, they move their peg along a chart, so they soon understand that they’re using this method and it has had a positive effect.

“The children are taught that no question is a daft question. If they don’t understand something, then they should ask.

“Einstein asked daft questions and he became a brilliant scientist.”

Rich vocabulary

Developing a rich vocabulary is also an important step in helping children express themselves. “We try to ensure the children are exposed to high quality words in every lesson, so this focus is not a standalone or separate subject,” says Chloe Burridge, who teaches Year 2.

“We choose reading texts carefully so that the language used is exciting and stimulating, and this in turn encourages the children to use this vocabulary themselves. Successful readers always know a lot of words.”

The school uses Tales Toolkit, a story-telling approach with four mystery ‘bags’ – one for character, one for the setting, a problem bag and another containing an outcome. Children pull one object out of each bag and create a story from what they end up with. The teacher then helps the pupils to build on their ideas to stimulate their imagination, learn and use new words.

“We also have opportunities for encouraging and modelling oracy in our early years setting through methods like role play, so it starts from a young age, and this is particularly important for the pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds, so they have the same chances in life as everyone else and can reach their potential,” says Chloe. 

“It is really noticeable that our children can talk about their own learning.”

Knowledge and skills

Gagle Brook’s curriculum design is sequenced carefully, so that children always learn in manageable steps, building on content they have covered previously.

This system also allows pupils to make sense of their learning, seeing its relevance and making links and connections. Encouraging them to ask questions means they are always finding out more, and even two years down the line, they still remember what they’ve learned.

The curriculum is designed to ensure that learning is relevant to the diverse school population and the wider community, and is rooted in the unique opportunity that the eco school delivers. Gagle Brook’s enquiry-based curriculum hooks children in, embracing cross-curricular links, to enhance learning experiences and give context to the knowledge acquired and skills taught. Where this is not possible, other high-quality texts, visual stimuli and experiences are used to make the knowledge and skills as accessible as possible.

Children are given regular opportunities to reflect on their learning and to share what they know, too. This happens in the forms of quizzes, presentations or discussions during lesson time. 

One Planet principles

The One Planet principles around which the curriculum is structured, originated from Bioregional, the global sustainability company responsible for the development of the school and local housing. These sustainability goals are contained in Bioregional’s own mission statement and have been adapted by Gagle Brook to be more accessible and understandable for young children.

The idea behind the principles is that while we live on one planet, in the UK and other European countries we are exhausting the equivalent resources of three planets. We all need to scale back and live more sustainably.

“When the school first opened, Bioregional worked on site and they supported us in integrating those principles into our curriculum so that children could understand them,” says Emily.

“The principles are visible through wall art in our library, so the pupils are constantly reminded of our ethos, are able to talk about them and to see how we absorb these into the life of the school.

“The children learn these principles from an early age and understand why it is so special and unique to be a pupil and teacher in this school.”

The One Planet symbols and principles are:

  • A bicycle – sustainable transport
  • Recycling – zero waste
  • Raindrop – sustainable water
  • A tree – sustainable materials
  • A butterfly – land use and wildlife
  • A child – health and happiness
  • A wind turbine – zero carbon
  • A group of people – culture and community
  • A handshake – equity and local economy
  • An apple – local and sustainable food

Building sustainability into the curriculum

The next step at Gagle Brook is to create a sustainable curriculum, with the One Planet principles woven into every subject.

Sustainability is already a feature of school assemblies and classroom discussions, and Gagle Brook is a Forest school. It is not unusual for children to debate, for example, the pros and cons of being a vegetarian or meat-eater in the context of environmental impact. In doing this, pupils are given a voice for their views and are able to form opinions.

“We did one lesson on Greta Thunberg and the pupils were amazed to learn that such a young girl claimed her voice and had so much influence,” Chloe explains. “It’s so important for the children to understand that, even though they are young, their opinions matter. This is their world, too. They don’t have to wait until they’re adults to have an impact.”

With a quarter of children currently eligible for pupil premium funding, the school has employed a learning mentor to work with pupils and their families with everyday challenges and needs, to identify, support and help remove any barriers to learning.

“We can already see the impact of our sustainability learning. Our children ask questions that many children of their age won’t have considered because of our ethos. It is really paying dividends,” adds Matt Street. 

“We sometimes ask ourselves in lessons: ‘if we don’t do that now, what could happen?’. Often, we don’t know the answer, so we look it up.”