Education Secretary Damien Hinds recently challenged all schools to become free of single-use plastic (SUP) by 2022 – but learners at NACE member Upton House School simply weren’t willing to wait that long. More Able Coordinator Melinda Ward shares the school’s student-led journey to going plastic-free…

A few months ago, we never could have imagined the impact one open-ended question would make as part of our drive towards achieving the NACE Challenge Award. The journey has been jaw-dropping and inspiring, with our pupils leading the whole school community into a force that has recently seen us become the first school in Berkshire to be awarded the coveted Plastic Free Status.

It started with one open-ended question, posed in an enrichment session with more able learners in Year 6: a world with or without plastic?

Pupils were given time to research and continued their mission at home. The facts that flooded back were horrifying and the effort put in exceeded expectations, leading to even deeper research and analysis. We learned about fake news, and how to consider sources and contexts.

From research to action

It soon became clear that learners were not content to simply research without acting. The Single-Use Plastic Alternative Committee (SUPA) was formed, with an invitation extended to all pupils who wanted to join the campaign to rid our school of SUP.

By the following week a band of 28 dedicated children were coming into school an hour early (with others on a waiting list) to passionately work on the campaign. Roles were allocated according to personal strengths (research, communications and so on) and a mission and action plan drawn up. Negotiation, communication, critical thinking, problem-solving and planning skills were being honed ready for action!

The mission? To rid our school of one piece of SUP per month until we could do no more.

Getting the whole school on board

Students created a PowerPoint presentation to share their project with the school’s senior leadership team. With their support, this was rolled out across the whole school, to parents and members of the local community. The response was amazing and the committee was given the green light to go for it with the support of the full Upton community. #PowerToThePupils!

To watch a video of the students’ presentation, click here.

Get (plastics) out of the kitchen!

Our next task was to find out where SUP was most in use. Surveys and questionnaires helped the girls realise that the kitchens were their first port of call. Initially our kitchen manager declared the mission “Impossible!”, but another personal presentation resulted in her full support and negotiations started about what would be first.

The children researched SUP alternatives: beeswax wraps, silicone covers, reusable sandwich wraps… As they learned more about health and safety restrictions, they began thinking laterally and persevered with their problem solving.

Resourceful solutions

Equipped with ideas and passion, learners organised an information desk for parents and other visitors, explaining the problem and showing viable alternatives to SUP.

In January we banned all single-use plastic bags used for snacks and lunches – opting for hessian nets, recycled plastic boxes and good old brown paper bags instead. Staff pledged to abandon single-use coffee cups (filled with plastic underneath that paper) and we now all have beautiful reusable cups.

In February SUP water bottles were banned from school grounds, with SUPA’s art directors designing posters asking parents to do the same and communication directors putting the message out through our weekly newsletter. The school bursar asked SUPA’s research directors to suggest suitable water fountains for refillable bottles (meeting certain criteria), and the older children made phone calls to appropriate suppliers.

In March plastic carrier bags were banned and alternative up-cycled T-shirts are being designed ready for International Plastic Bag Free Day on 3 July. The children are bursting with ideas and it’s going to be a busy few months putting their designs into production, with all proceeds to our favourite plastic-free charities.

In April we are banning drinking cartons (which take up to 300 years to decompose) and in May we’re hoping to go back to good old-fashioned glass milk bottles. Our trip packed lunches have already seen a reduction from six items of plastic per lunch to one (crisp bags are yet to be hit!).

Extending the campaign’s reach

Amongst all this, students’ business email, formal letter writing, presentation and professional communication skills have been sharpened. They’ve written to Mr Gove and Mr Hinds asking for support at government level, as well as supermarkets and IT companies to request the removal of SUP packaging.

We’re lobbying cafes and fast food companies now, and students are planning to share their expertise by running an information desk in the town centre.

In extending the reach of our campaign, we’re loosely following Greenpeace’s A Million Acts of Blue toolkit. We were also lucky enough to come across a wonderful group of volunteers called Plastic Free Windsor – part of national charity Surfers Against Sewage – who have supported us along the way.

We’ve had guest talks from a Greenpeace representative; ethical pet food supplier Lily’s Kitchen on packaging; and a free diver about changes she’s noticed in the oceans. We’ve received support from our local MP as well as councillors and other organisations, and our message has spread far and wide.

Try typing “Upton House plastic free” into Google to see a selection of our national and local interest.

What next?

We’ve realised these young people can rise to any challenge they feel passionate about – if they are allowed a voice and the chance to lead. This falls within Element 5 (communication and partnership) of the NACE Challenge Framework and has certainly made a positive contribution to the environment and connected us even more firmly with our local community. Our SUPA members are aged 9-11, so teacher guidance has been necessary, but the ideas and actions are all theirs and the educational and personal benefits have been staggering.

One child, who not so long ago was too shy to read in front of a group, recently carried out her own survey on public opinions of SUP in the town centre and was first to volunteer to be on the information desk! Another, one of our budding young scientists, carried out experiments on onion membranes to research possible SUP alternatives. Throughout the journey the children have found themselves taking risks and going beyond their known capabilities – contributing to our focus on developing Element 3 (curriculum, teaching and support) of the Challenge Framework.

The creative thinking and problem solving is amazing and endless. As staff we are swept along with it overjoyed. By the end of April our actions are on target to save 12,117 plastic bags, 850 bottles, 297 metres of clingfilm and a whopping 10,668 cartons per annum. That’s without counting the savings being made by parents at home inspired by their children.

We’re now planning a “plog” (plastic litter pick whilst we jog) and our committee’s IT directors are investigating setting up a website with fun ideas to educate other schools. Requests to make a “plastic -free mocumentary” have also been put forward!

A local nursery has asked our children to run a session with their little ones about reducing plastic use, and other schools locally and nationally have been in touch asking for information and support. In response, we’re creating a “How to be SUPA” manual for students of any school.

Being awarded Plastic Free School Status was a huge milestone, and we want a banner on our gates to encourage others. Not a plastic one of course… Anyone know anything about Bioflex?!

Feeling inspired?

To share your school’s own story, and/or to request a copy of Upton House School’s “How to be SUPA” manual, get in touch.

Melinda Ward left the financial marketing industry to train as a teacher 25 years ago. She subsequently specialised in teaching dyslexic learners and non-English speakers, currently working in both the state and independent sector. At Upton House School her role also includes leading on provision for more able students. 

Upton House School in Windsor is an independent nursery, pre-prep and prep school catering for boys and girls aged 2-11 years old. The school is a member of NACE and is working towards the NACE Challenge Award.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019