Richard Dunne is Headteacher of a UK state primary school near London which has achieved Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ status, the highest performance level, for the last seven years. Despite this, he believes that the current curriculum is failing our children, both in terms of enabling them to feel a sense of connectedness with the planet or in preparing them to play their part in healing the damage that their parents’ generation have caused to its life support systems. To address this disconnection, he has introduced a new educational approach based on the Harmony principles developed by the Prince of Wales.
School days as a child were about trying to do the right thing. I learnt the basics well, but I wasn’t a very confident child. As light relief from the classroom I used to escape to the local woods. There, in the streams winding through the trees, I caught minnows and sticklebacks and searched for frogs. It was captivating.
The real highlight of my year, though, was our family Easter trip to Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales. Being in such a beautiful and often bleak landscape – especially on a bitterly cold and frosty morning – was pure heaven. I felt totally alive. As a boy of 10, I found contentment and treasured every day I was there.
Sometimes, I would walk down the lane to the local farmer’s stone cottage and wait for him to set out on his early morning rounds checking on newly born lambs or attending to ewes in distress. Standing in the driving rain, watching as the steam of a newborn lamb rose up from the grass and its mother licked it to life, was one of the most life affirming moments I have ever experienced.
The transformative effect of Nature
This passion for nature has never left me and I am continually reminded that we can only expect our young people to love nature if they have opportunities to experience its transformative effect. Most of us who feel a deep connection to the natural world can link it back to one or more powerful experiences in our childhood. It is one of the reasons I get so frustrated when people talk about classroom learning, as if that is the only place you can learn.
There were other experiences that had a profound effect on my vision of education. In my early 20s I worked at one of Mother Teresa’s homes, Prem Dan, in Kolkata. Spending time in one of the world’s most poverty stricken cities, where many people live on the streets or alongside the railway line, was a real eye-opener. It was incredibly humbling to work in a home for the most vulnerable outcasts, young and old. Each morning I would feed and wash and shave an old man as helpless as a young child. It put life in perspective in an increasingly competitive and self-centred world. That sense of service, of caring for and looking after those in need, became central to my ethos of how to live. In my role as headteacher at Ashley CofE Primary School, I try to impart a consistent message of the need to cherish, to nurture and to love.
I trained to be a primary school teacher because children have such a passion for learning, discovery, play and fun – surely the best ingredients for life. I also like the way in which the primary school curriculum can be joined together through interconnected topics or enquiries of learning. In my opinion this is the only way to teach and 25 years down the line I still see this more meaningful approach as essential to our children’s well-being and development.
Learning to make a difference
In my first school I became involved in Roots and Shoots, a programme set up by the primatologist Dr Jane Goodall. It addresses three key themes: care and concern for animals; care and concern for the human community; and care and concern for the environment. It is usually run as an extra-curricular club and its message is clear: when we are informed and empowered, we can make a difference. It resonated with me strongly.
This desire to shift practices so that sustainability and environmental awareness threaded through all forms of learning was further reinforced when I met polar explorer Robert Swan and was invited to help him set up an education base in Antarctica.
Antarctica is the last true wilderness on Earth. It is the coldest, driest, windiest place imaginable – an ice continent. Every winter when the ocean around it freezes, it doubles in size. Setting up an education base run on renewable energy in such a hostile environment was no easy task, but the message was clear. If we can establish such a place here in Antarctica, we can do it anywhere. It was a challenge to us all to move away from our reliance on fossil fuel energy and find a cleaner, more sustainable means of operating.
The Antarctic peninsula has experienced some of the most extreme changes in climate in recent times. In the past 50 years the temperature there has risen nearly 3°C and its melting icebergs each spring and summer are the silent messengers, reminding us that if temperatures continue to rise, the consequences will be severe.
Letting Nature be our teacher
On our last evening there we anchored in one of the peninsula’s bays. I walked up to the bow of the ship, climbed the steps to the look-out and gazed out into the silence. It was an eerily still night and I was increasingly aware of the wall of ice surrounding me. I was struck by one thought above all: if we are to create a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren, we must learn from nature’s principles and practices. Nature teaches us never to create waste. It teaches us not to pollute. It teaches us how to be well, and how to create never-ending cycles and sustainable systems. If this part of the world is changing so rapidly and the primary reason is human activity, then we must change what we do and do it fast.
So, in my school, a revolution has begun. Sustainability, so often a peripheral theme in education, has been put at the centre of all that the children learn, be it monitoring and setting targets for our energy and water conservation projects, growing organic food, becoming beekeepers, sowing wildflower seeds, harvesting, preparing and serving seasonal soups to grandparents, or overseeing the management of closed loop recycling systems. Maths, Science, English writing tasks and Art and Design projects are all linked into this approach and, not surprisingly, the children love to learn this way. Ofsted like it, too. For nearly nine years we have been an ‘Outstanding’ school.
Most importantly, though, it is the leadership of the children that shines through what they do. They are setting the agenda for how we can improve our sustainability practices. They are realising that they can indeed be the change they want to see. The learning journey is based on a questioning, enquiring approach that asks quite simply ‘What do you think?’ and ‘What can you do?’
Reconnecting with Nature’s systems
The final element to this story so far is HRH The Prince of Wales’ book Harmony (2010). It is a compelling read – so much so that I wrote to him to say how much I had enjoyed it, and also to say that the world of education was not hearing what the principles of Harmony were telling us. The book charts the history of civilisations, cultures and religions since Ancient Egyptian times and maps how they had always understood the need to live in harmony with the natural world. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, we have become increasingly disconnected from nature’s systems. We are damaging and degrading the natural environment like never before.
Sustainability is often about fixing problems – reducing the amount of pollution we create, increasing our recycling, protecting the rainforest. But Harmony reminds us that as we learn to understand nature’s universal and eternal principles and align them to the way we work and live, we naturally create our own harmonious and sustainable systems.
The Harmony principles are now the guiding principles in my school. Each week the children learn about the geometry of nature and then explore their wider learning in the context of the Harmony principles. The principles give the children a clearer understanding of the world; as a result, the way they want to live is shifting to a new, better and more sustainable place.
This article was first published on the Sustainable Food Trust website on 6th November 2015.
Photograph: Richard Dunne