Case study: Ballarat Grammar works with the community and empowers students, making Ballarat a leader in sustainability

Ballarat Grammar is at the centre of sustainable action in Ballarat, with strong connections to the wider community. The school regularly provides a venue for community sustainability events and one of its teachers co-founded a local sustainability organisation set up to address the issues associated with climate change. The school’s passion for sustainability is nurturing a generation of students who are empowered to create change, and equipped to pursue environmental careers.

In 2007, Ballarat Grammar joined ResourceSmart Schools. The initiative helped the school to focus their already established sustainability goals. In 2013, six years after signing up, the school was certified as a 5 Star school – the pinnacle of ResourceSmart Schools. To achieve this, it is not enough to simply tick the boxes on the Sustainability Certification checklist: schools need to live and breathe sustainability. It must demonstrate leadership in the school and education community: mentoring, sharing stories, attending conferences, hosting teacher network meetings and engaging with other environmental groups. Ballarat Grammar does all of these things.

Sustainability is a personal passion of headmaster Stephen Higgs, who has driven many of the school’s big picture sustainability initiatives – including its focus on environmental learning, the leading edge sustainable architecture of its newer buildings, and its wind turbines and solar panels.

The benefits of Sustainability Certification

“Our Sustainability Certification confirms to the community that sustainability is an important dimension of everything we do,” said Sustainability Coordinator Clarice Lisle, who drives the school’s involvement with ResourceSmart Schools. “That recognition is really satisfying.”

As a 5 Star school, Ballarat Grammar is a role model for members of the Ballarat community, other schools and even international visitors, who visit the school to learn from their example. The school regularly lends its venues to a range of local sustainability organisations. Its own quarterly events series – “In the Spotlight”, is open to the Ballarat community. The events feature high profile speakers on ethical and sustainability issues. Recently, Clarice took a tour group from India through the school; they were interested in ResourceSmart Schools and how they might apply a similar system in their country.

Clarice said that although the school saves money (by reducing energy bills and waste), what’s really important is the cultural and behavioural change it models, for the wider community and for the students. “Being a 5 Star school sets a high standard for students to aspire to,” she said. This environment not only creates behaviour change on a personal level, but provides a holistic learning experience that can lead to careers in the growth area of sustainability.

“It’s also a great promotional tool for incoming families. Environmentally friendly schools are rapidly becoming a popular choice with parents.”

Ballarat Grammar has introduced VCE Agriculture and (very recently) VCE Environmental Science as subjects. Both are well patronised – the school has the largest enrolment in VCE Agriculture in the state. “We see the whole area of environmental science and agriculture as profitable career options for students,” said Stephen Higgs.

 “Really rich” place-based learning

In 2001, the school established the Heinz Centre for Environmental Studies, where grade nine students spend the year immersed in learning with an environmental theme.

The building is rammed earth, which provides natural insulation, with recycled timber. It generates its own power (with solar panels and a wind turbine) and treats some of its own waste. The centre has its own biodynamic learn-scape (a place designed to invite users to learn through interaction with the environment), developed by the students using permaculture principles.

From next year, the school’s grade four students will spend the majority of their year learning at Mount Rowan Campus, a farm approximately four kilometres from the main campus. They’ll be growing their own vegetables and making their own food as well as learning animal husbandry and environmental stewardship.

“Place-based learning and an engaging environment can support learning activity in all areas. We see this philosophy of sustainability as not just good for what our young people might do for the future of the planet, but something that can result in really rich learning tasks for the students,” said Stephen. “It translates to their homes too – they go home and put into practice some of the things they’ve learned here.”

At Mount Rowan Campus, Ballarat Grammar has entered a partnership with the Central Highlands Agribusiness Forum to set up demonstration plots: one using conventional farming techniques and the other using biodynamic farming. It will be available for local farmers to observe. “That’s potentially going to mean that we can have a more natural approach to farming in the region,” said Stephen. It’s this kind of partnership with the wider community; effecting change beyond the school boundaries, that helped Ballarat Grammar become a 5 Star school. Such community partnerships link students to the wider world.

BREAZE: A community environment group with roots in the school

History teacher Nick Lanyon was one of the first teachers to be involved in the Heinz Centre where he taught environment and climate change. In 2006, he co-founded BREAZE (Ballarat Renewable Energy and Zero Emissions Inc), a local sustainability organisation set up to address the issues associated with climate change. The first meeting of 40 community members was held at the Heinz Centre; now there are over 600 paid members of BREAZE, including Stephen Higgs and several Ballarat Grammar parents.

BREAZE has been instrumental in helping community members sign up to solar hot water and grid connect solar systems, which supply energy directly through photovoltaic (PV) panels, which capture the sun’s energy to generate electricity. Any excess energy feeds back into the main grid, generating payments to householders. BREAZE researched the available systems and reported back to group members to help guide their consumer choices, and make it easy for them to purchase solar systems. They also advised people about the state and federal rebates available to them. “When we first started, I think there were two grid solar systems in Ballarat,” said Nick. “That very first time we offered PV panels to our members, we got 90 people or so from Ballarat signed up. It was a huge change.”

Empowering students to create environmental change

The school’s student action teams are active in a range of student-driven environmental activities, in both the junior and senior schools.

The environmental group in the graduating class of 2011 raised funds to offset their educational carbon footprint. They contributed to the cost of a wind turbine for the Centennial Building, which houses the school’s VCE students. The graduating class of 2012 raised money for the building to get a Green Wall: a soil-less vertical garden that improves air quality and energy efficiency.

For the past eight years, the junior school has run its own Eco Shop, a project that was the brainchild of an enthusiastic student. The environmental shop sells recycled and second-hand items (most of them priced at five or ten cents each) to raise money for sustainable projects in the school and for the wider community. In its first year, it raised $700. In 2013, the shop had raised $3000 in just eight months.

Student Keira Unmack was one of the original founders of the Eco Shop; she’s now in year ten. “It’s great to see how it has grown even after we’ve left the junior school,” she said. “It’s something enjoyable and worthwhile.”

Another initiative run by the junior students was the Anti Pollution Squad, who convinced a local shopping centre to contain its overflowing rubbish, through a letter-writing campaign. “Kids are very powerful,” said Clarice. “A child’s voice can have a lot more power than an adult’s voice to get organisations to change. The children mean what they say: it’s their future they are starting to take ownership of. And adults are less likely to ignore a child’s voice, for fear of seeming hard or uncaring.”

She says involvement in environmental groups is wonderful for students’ self-esteem, because they see results from their actions. “The benefits are long-term.”