Going green

It’s not always easy being a greenie! An environmental inspired article by Mary Rose, one of our regular home education columnists.

Thirty years ago, when Kermit the frog sang his lament, “green” was an adjective applied first to vegetation, secondly to amphibians, and way down the list,  to that weird band of humans whose environmental mission was made manifest in de rigueur chunky hand-knits and clanky bicycles.

How things have changed!

Back then, elective Home-based Education although not unheard of, was unusual enough to raise eyebrows, cause comment and pass opinion.  Rarely the first choice for many families, home education was often the last straw, taken in crisis when school failed to deliver either an education fit for purpose, or a place of safety, or both.

Now, the number of children in the UK educated at home is estimated at around 16,000 and the uptake looks set to continue.  These days, far from being uncommon, if you have not chosen home education yourself, it is likely that you know, or know of, a family that has.  The reasons given for opting to educate children out of school are as many and varied as home-educators themselves, but broadly speaking,  educational philosophies – a preference for flexible learning, environment and academic achievement issues – top the list, while social factors like bullying and school phobia have less influence on the decision.  But do parents equate a choice to home-educate with a choice to be “Green”?

As public environmental awareness levels in the UK soars, education – what it is, how it serves us, where we get it and who it works for – must be held accountable for instructing future generations in knowledge which transcends the 3 R’s, IT, FT, PHSCE and every other edu-jargon mystery on the curriculum. Our children must learn to respect the planet upon which we all depend for survival, and more than that, survival techniques fit for a world which looks set to become a very different and far more dangerous place than the one in which we, their parents, grew up.

As a long-term home-based educator and school teacher, I have the privilege of insight into the workings of both worlds.  Schools, well-intentioned though they may be, profess to be ‘Green’, aspire to ‘Greeness’ and strive to stamp out their carbon footprints, but sadly, all too often their efforts turn out to be so much Greenwash.  “Eco-school” awards pronounce a level of awareness within individual institutions, but do they give a real indication of what is going on?  Some factors are simply out of the control of even the most well-intentioned staff and pupils.

Badly designed buildings are not confined to the glass-and-Ryvita architectural style of the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Amazingly, 21st century schools waste energy as if it was going out of fashion (which it probably is!).

Recycling of waste is on everyone’s wish-list; it saves money, conserves resources, and reduces greenhouse gas from manufacturing and landfill.  But, classed as “industrial” sites, many schools are charged for their recycling facilities.  No wonder recycling falls casualty to financial constraint!

Saddest of all, perhaps, is the story of the school garden.  Thousands of pounds worth of Government-backed initiatives support willing staff  in “grow your own” projects, but schools keen to sow and grow seem to give little consideration to timing of harvests; come July thriving vegetable patches are abandoned to scorch and fruit rot on the vine.  In one school I visited, children process with watering cans from classroom to vegetable patch in a scene resembling something from Disney’s ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, simply because the garden area had been designed without an outside tap.

Another school revealed a similar scenario – a dismal garden, overgrown with weeds because position makes it simply un-gardenable. This patch receives no sunlight – ever.  It’s raised beds are surrounded on all sides by tall buildings.  “Fine for mushrooms…”, I suggested.  “Huh”, snorted the teacher, “they grow there anyway!”

Many within schools are already actively engaged in battling for change – more than talking the talk of environmental conservation, they really do want to walk the walk.

The option of home-based education, however, puts parents back in control.  The values you and I hold dear at home can and are continued in a real-time education which embraces a ‘Green’ lifestyle. A valid choice for all parents in UK, thanks to a clause in the 1996 Education Act, and commonplace across the US, Australia and New Zealand, electing to educate at home dispenses with many of the un-green by-products inherent with a decision to school.

First the school run.  That stress-generating, twice-daily journey to school and back which can generate up to 0.25 of a ton of CO2 per year (calculated on a 2 mile home to school journey in a 4×4 or people-carrier). Despite many initiatives aimed at dispensing with the school run, nothing has yet been employed which alleviates the traffic chaos across the country in term-time. Lose the school, lose the school run.

Then there are uniforms.  Hand-me-downs provide some scope for recycling within the family, and some schools have second-hand supplies, but most uniforms are bought new, with scant regard for the ethics of origin.  When school comes in at the door, informed “Green” choice flies out of the window!

Home educators realised long ago, it’s not what you wear, it’s what you learn and how effectively you learn it which constitutes a good education! Learning is based on individual potential and achievement, unique opportunities and one-to-one attention of interested adults.  Home-based education forges a direct link between real life and acquisition of knowledge giving learning both meaning and purpose.

In the early years especially, there is no need for families to purchase expensive equipment, books or IT to home educate – most homes have all that is needed.  Taking a simple example, in the first few years of schooling, much time in class is devoted to teaching number, language and sequencing by artificial tasks – sorting coloured plastic shapes, threading beads or arranging peg-boards, or cutting and pasting pictures in the correct order.  In the “Green” home, a child involved in a task with an adult can learn the same concepts, but for real.  As a young Mum with child working alongside in the preparation of a meal, “sorting” activities were tackled on a daily basis, distinguishing between and disposing of aluminium, paper, plastics, tins and glass in the correct recycling containers.

Science and chemistry are inherent in a kitchen – we watched cakes rise, yeast bubble and ferment, and custard thicken; every meal became an “experiment”!  Learning to turn off taps, lights and TVs is easy if Mum or Dad is there to nag, and when you realise at an early age that those things called Bills which cause worried expressions are directly related to the amount of energy used in a house!  Home educated children are not shielded from society – they are part of it.  Answer all the “whats”, “whys” and “hows” fully and honestly, as they occur, and you provide an education which no school can rival.

Supermarket trips offer a rich seam of learning.  Reading, prices, weights and measures, hot and cold, heavy and light – all these were learned in the supermarket. Shopping is a real chance to make “Green” choices, considering where products have come from (Geography), foods in season (Science), “healthy” products and of course, packaging.  As a parent, my reactions to over-packaged, poor value and excessive food miles rubbed off on my children.
“Carrots…Oh, they’re from Chile!” I exclaimed once, rejecting the packet.  “Why on earth, when carrots grow and keep perfectly well here?!”  Overhearing this, a child popped a packet of carrot seeds in the trolley.  We planted them, tended them and found out how to keep them out of the freezer, thanks to Grandma, who grew and kept carrots long before domestic freezers were available.

When invited to give a presentation on recycling to a group of ten and eleven year olds recently, I was not surprised to learn that they knew all about methane, CO2, and had a range of vocabulary which would, in my school-days been worthy of a science ‘A’ level group. Yet they had no idea why we should recycle plastic milk bottles, no idea where the plastic came from, and  not a clue as to how it was made, or that the raw materials used to make plastic are a finite resource!  Educational success as a quantifiable product of the school system too often seems to be like those elaborately decorated cakes in a baker’s window – the icing is wonderful, till you realise there is no cake underneath!

Conservation of resources, environmental awareness and a ‘Green’ way of living becomes the reality in life-style choice when parents take the responsibility. In home education, children are influenced first and foremost by their parents, and as a home-educator, I make no apology for that.  Unlike friends with schooled children, I have no experience of trailing round a town in search of a particular brand-name pair of trainers or designer-labelled garment, a slave to the “pester power” of my children.

And there is the secret of home education being the ‘Green’ choice; taking responsibility for educating your own results in the inevitable loss of earning opportunity.  One parent must forgo paid employment outside of the home if children are to receive a full-time education out of school.

Yet, relative poverty drives sustainable living!

Home educators are more likely to grow their own food, reuse and recycle, to cut down on waste, walk or use public transport than drive, holiday at home, and restrict air travel –not cheap at any price!  True, travel broadens the mind, and much can be learned from the example set by the people of rural Africa, where poverty dictates re-using as a way of life.  Their today, our tomorrow?

Becoming a parent causes us to focus on the uncertainties of the future.  George Monbiot, the writer, environmental campaigner, long-time herald of man-made climate change, became the proud father of a baby girl as he embarked on the final chapters of his book, Heat.  With 16-day old daughter on his lap, he writes, “I am no longer writing about what might happen to ‘people’ in this country in thirty years’ time.  I am writing about her… The world…in which unrestrained climate change threatens the conditions which make human life possible is the world into which she might grow.  Global warming is no longer a generalised phenomenon. It’s victims no longer abstractions.  Among them might be my child.  Or yours.”

Teaching the values of environmental awareness, and teaching it effectively becomes of paramount importance; ability to program a computer, write a letter, execute differential equations or recite the Kings of England will be of little use if or when Kent resembles the Kalahari, Devon drowns and Scotland swelters.  Today, as olive groves and vineyards rise like soufflés across England and the smart money investors snap up land in Scotland, the writing is on the wall for all to see.  Scientific evidence indicates change, but suggests we must engage in damage limitation.

Children, past-masters at “pester power”, can and do make a difference.  When the children ask teachers where the recycling bins are, why there is no water butt, or turn lights off themselves when they leave a room, the adults will learn to provide and comply.  Teach children well at home right from the start, and they will take that learning into the world.

So Kermit was right, and wrong.  It is easy to be green in a green environment.  Kermit sang his sad song surrounded by his friends – a pig, a buzzard and a bear.  I’m sure Kermit’s Mum loved him, and if he’d have just gone home, he’d have found being green was oh, so natural and easy!

Terri Dowty, a home educator, author and campaigner for children’s rights, writes in her book Paths are made by walking, “Home-based education originates within the family, the building block of society, and that it is flourishing should be seen as a hopeful sign for the future.”

Parents with ‘Green’ ideals take heart – ‘Greenness’, like charity, begins at home.


Mary Rose is a home educator and mother of five, three still at home. She teaches part-time in a local special school, and is a freelance writer, author of several books on home-based education and has participated in broadcasts on radio and TV covering elective home education. Mary lives with her husband in the Forest of Dean, where they are keen gardeners and keep backyard poultry, as well as several pets. When she isn’t writing, playing with her children or saving the planet, Mary and her family play music together in an English ceilidh band, travelling the country in their elderly bus to provide live music for dances at events, weddings and festivals.


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