An investigation into staff and pupil perceptions of environmentally responsible actions in an Eco-School

Davenport, Joanne (2022) An investigation into staff and pupil perceptions of environmentally responsible actions in an Eco-School. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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Environmental education initiatives such as the Eco-Schools programme, attempt to help young people become informed about the impact of climate change, to participate in sustainable activities and to empower them to lead actions. An Eco-School seeks to integrate sustainability into everyday school life and the curriculum whilst encouraging the involvement of pupils, staff and parents in developing environmental awareness. With this as the context, the study aimed to investigate the environmental perceptions, beliefs and actions of staff and those of pupils in an Eco-School. Additionally, it aimed to explore the influence of the Eco-Schools ethos on the beliefs and actions of staff and pupils. This qualitative, ethnographic study entailed gathering data from a Catholic Eco-School in the Northwest of England over a period of one year. In addition to the use of observation, documentary evidence and questionnaires, staff (both teaching and non-teaching) and pupils (aged 9-10 years) participated in one-to-one interviews.

Using the lens of social practice theory, the data revealed the differentiated skills, reasoning and beliefs of participants regarding practices designed to develop environmental responsibility in the school. It was found that changes to practices had taken place due to differing beliefs and understandings. These had influenced participants’ performance of routines central to the practices.

The findings contribute towards the understanding of pupil perceptions of environmental responsibility in an Eco-School and their competency to provide ideas that could be used to reflect on, challenge and develop environmental practices. Although it was clear that pupils were able to articulate their thoughts concerning the strengths and weaknesses of the Eco-Schools programme, it seemed they seldom had occasions to share their thoughts and contribute towards refining practices. As a result, the school was failing to benefit from the valuable pupil perceptions necessary to develop the effectiveness of environmental practices in school.

Furthermore, the findings enhance our understanding of pupil participation in the process of making environmental decisions. It was evident that staff valued the role of pupils as participants in environmental actions and target-setting, yet there were limited opportunities for pupils to increase their involvement and to develop their decision-making skills. The study has shown that the school overall facilitated a largely passive involvement of pupils, positioning them at a relatively low level of Hart’s Ladder of Participation (1992), rather than providing meaningful opportunities for them to engage in decision-making and changing practices. This was a missed opportunity for the school to develop the skills and agency pupils would need to effectively tackle environmental challenges.

In addition, the study provides a new understanding of environmental responsibility within an Eco-School which had started to approach environmental education from a religious perspective. Although protecting the environment remained a key aim of the school, it seemed that the pupil-led Eco-Schools programme had become less important as the main approach to developing environmental awareness. This suggested a change of focus from a pupil-led environmental education programme which aims to empower pupils to lead the design, implementation and evaluation of actions, to one guided by the religious character of the school and principally reliant on cultural meaning to sustain practices. Although it was unclear if this would influence the nature of pupil actions, the findings extend our understanding of an Eco-School guided by religious obligations.

Overall, it was clear that pupils (and staff) were willing to offer insight into their perceptions of environmental responsibility. It is recommended that schools recognise how these views and understandings can be used to inform environmental practices and to develop their effectiveness. It is also recommended that all pupils are consulted and listened to, and are offered opportunities to become active participants in the process of environmental decision-making and planning in school to prepare them for the future.

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