Becoming part of the solution

Schools and institutions award, commendation: Wessa/WWF-SA Eco-Schools Programme.

Founded in KwaZulu-Natal, the Wessa/WWF-SA Eco-Schools Programme helps schools to use the environment as a learning tool.

At the same time the programme’s innovative ‘change framework” teaches a new generation of consumers and leaders how to be part of the solution to our environmental challenges, rather than part of the problem.

It’s a simple but effective concept that has seen the programme grow consistently since its introduction and adaptation to South Africa from Europe in 2003.

Nationwide voluntary membership is now 1 030 schools, each of which follow a seven-step process towards sustainable development, both within their institutions and local communities.

Carefully aligned with the national curriculum, the programme was adapted for South Africa at the Environmental Education and Sustainability Unit at Rhodes University as part of a peer-reviewed research process.

Implemented in South Africa by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa), the programme is part of the international Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), which has members in 50 countries around the world.

In South Africa the educational value of the programme makes it particularly attractive to poorer schools because of the professional teaching support it offers to educators in the form of direct training, resource materials, lesson plan ideas and reporting and assessment techniques.

Its inherent flexibility means that the programme draws its membership from a variety of institutions, ranging from private high schools in city centres to no-fee farm schools, township schools and even home schools.

‘One of the virtues of Eco-Schools is that it isn’t a competition. Schools work against their own yardsticks and decide what environmental issues are relevant to them,” said national Eco-Schools coordinator Bridget Ringdahl. ‘Activities are determined by the schools and directed by their capacity.”

Although learners at rural schools might focus on food gardens or make hand-washing dispensers out of waste materials to hang in outdoor toilets as part of their healthy living module, learners in more resourced schools might focus on electronic waste or design a carbon footprint calculator.

Schools are grouped into nodes that work closely with a node coordinator, who, in turn, is managed by a provincial coordinator. Thus, each school is given access to a wide resource network.

Educators and their learners choose one of five broad environmental themes that range from resource use to healthy living and nature and biodiversity.

Involvement of community members and parents in the entire process is encouraged and an eco-committee is established, made up of representation from communities neighbouring the schools.

Lesson plans, aligned with the curriculum, are developed around the five themes and school development plans are drawn up.

Results are collected and reflected in a portfolio that tracks the positive changes of the school and local environment.

Schools that can reflect an improvement qualify for an award that ranges from the bronze award to a prestigious international green flag, which comes with five years of consecutive membership and successful participation.

‘Schools take the award ceremonies very seriously,” said Ringdahl. ‘Time and again we’ve been encouraged and touched by the pride the schools take in their school and the whole process.”

Although based on sound educational principles and practice, the programme is also designed to be a driver of behavioural change.

‘Eco-Schools is an excellent way to help a new generation of consumers and leaders to be part of the solution — It helps drive a new zeitgeist of learning to live within the resources that sustain us,” said Ringdahl.

Testimonials from schools suggest that the programme has precipitated marked improvements in the physical appearance of schools, as well as changes in learners’ attitudes.

Teachers, too, have had their perceptions challenged. Ridwan Samodien, principal of Kannemeyer Primary School in the Western Cape, said teachers showed initial resistance to the requirements of the programme, but are now highly motivated.

‘We have learned that the environment is tied directly to the curriculum’s principles of social justice, healthy environment and inclusivity,” he wrote.

Ringdahl said the commendation is ‘recognition of the programme’s contribution to striving towards better education, an environmental ethic and sustainability within schools and communities”.

She said the programme’s success has been heavily dependent on partners. One of the oldest of these is the Midlands Meander Association Education Project (MMAEP) (the winner in this category).

‘We are proud to be associated with the colourful, vibrant and passionate MMAEP team, who, under the guidance of Nikki Brighton, give a wonderful sense of how eco-schools can play out successfully.”

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