World Environment Day is a chance to reflect on how our actions impact the planet and what we can be doing to take care of and restore its environments across the globe.
Scotland’s independent schools are committed to taking action to protect the world around them, with pupils actively and enthusiastically involved in school sustainability initiatives.
In this blog, we hear from Richard Toley, Headmaster at Lathallan School, who told SCIS about his school’s approach to sustainability and why it should be an essential part of any curriculum.
The future depends on what we do in the present
Have you ever wished you could go back in time and change a decision you’ve made, or choose a different path? No doubt we are all guilty of this to some extent and, as a teacher of Classics, I have more than a passing enthusiasm for events of an historic nature.
While reflecting on the past can help shape the direction we want to go in future, we mustn’t spend all our time dwelling on what might, or could, have been. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The future depends on what we do in the present”.
Never has this sentiment been more true than when it comes to climate change, one of the biggest challenges we, as a modern society, face. In a recently published climate report  I read that, between 2010 and 2019, average annual greenhouse gas emissions were higher than at any other time in human history, with ‘immediate and deep emissions reductions’ required across all aspects of life.
You would be forgiven for saying “that’s not our problem, that’s the responsibility of heavy industry”, or for asking “but what can one small school in the North East of Scotland achieve?”.In response, I would ask you to consider that, just as emissions are generated by many sectors, we will need many different solutions to decarbonise the world in which we live.
Every effort makes a difference
When Dave Brailsford was hired as the performance director of British Cycling in 2003, he transformed the team’s future with a strategy he called ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. In an interview in 2012, he explained: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by one per cent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” 
That sort of outlook is just as relevant when it comes to tackling climate change. Young people today are far better informed on this topic than any generation before them, and you only have to look at the impact that a handful of individuals have made – from Greta Thunberg and Nyombi Morris, to Celeste Tinajero and Dominique Palmer – to see that the next generation has an important role to play.
Bear in mind too that these are just a few of the young activists working to change the narrative. Now imagine the potential that just one per cent of the1.8 billion young people (between the ages of 10 to 24 ) in the world today could achieve when it comes to climate action. Individual ripples of change absolutely have the potential to form a groundswell and our pupils are, can and should be, a part of that effort.
Focusing on sustainability at school
That’s why, at Lathallan, we see sustainability, not as a ‘nice to have’, but as a ‘must have’. Across our junior and senior schools, we have eco clubs undertaking a range of activities – from litter picks, tree planting and recording wildlife sightings (like deer, squirrels and hedgehogs), to supporting efforts to expand the outdoor learning spaces across our 60-acre campus.
Our school farm, meanwhile, provides pupils with a unique experience, giving them the opportunity to better understand the agricultural processes behind food production – whether through sharing the responsibility of looking after our polytunnel, growing a variety of fruits and vegetables, or caring for our animals. Where possible, our catering manager, Chef Carter, uses the food produced for breakfasts, lunches and dinners, enhancing pupils' understanding of the ‘farm-to-fork’ movement and reducing food miles.
We are fortunate too that the school is based in such beautiful surroundings. This provides the opportunity for our nursery and junior school children to spend a large proportion of their days outside, immersed in nature. By senior school, we find our pupils have developed a great deal of respect for their surroundings and are enthusiastic about getting involved in a range of environmental activities. This is complemented by our state-of-the-art science centre, which provides the perfect setting for those who opt to study Environmental Science at National 5 and Higher levels.
As well as benefitting the planet, there are several obvious advantages to these efforts. From sparking the pupils' enthusiasm, and helping them develop empathy and a sense of responsibility, to improving their mental and physical health through spending time outside the classroom, our focus on sustainability ensures our students better understand how the decisions they make and the actions they take can help to create a better, fairer and healthier world.
Mr Toley is a member of the Independent Schools Council’s Sustainability Group, a forum through which he will share best practices and lessons learned from Lathallan’s continued efforts to protect the environment, and to teach pupils about sustainability.
1 IPCC stands for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the United Nations body responsible for advancing knowledge on human-induced climate change.
2‘Olympics cycling: Marginal gains underpin Team GB dominance’, M. Slater, BBC Sport, 8 August 2012: https://bbc.in/3LMTubA
3‘10 things you didn’t know about the world’s population’, UN Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth: https://bit.ly/38WnQtE