Case Study

Protest has turned to action at Putney High School

The scheme involves the whole school community in showing how small changes in both mindset and behaviour can actually make a large and lasting impact.

Heidi Armstrong, Head of Senior School

Putney students recorded for The Naked Scientists podcast for BBC5 Live.

As COP27 gets underway amid political and economic turmoil, the conference seeks renewed commitment from all nations ‘to deliver on the Paris Agreement, for people and the planet’. Hard to believe a year has passed since one of our sixth formers came away from COP26 with what she described as “a sense of tempered optimism.” Interviewed by The Naked Scientists podcast she spoke with other students about teenage attitudes to climate crisis and the urgent need for change. And for them, words were not enough! Putney’s eco-warriors wanted action.

At Putney High School, our eco-conscience has always been strong, but when Greta Thunberg seized the public consciousness and showed a whole generation the power of their own voice, Putney decided to turn protest into action. Fundamentally we decided that “It Starts with Me” and our whole community quickly committed to making the small but positive changes which collectively could promote change.

Every year Putney’s BREATHE week offers pupils from across the Junior and Senior schools the opportunity to participate in litter-picks, tree-planting, ‘plastic hackathons’, and a myriad of workshops and projects that help us save electricity and reduce paper and food waste. Over the course of the week, we collect and examine data that proves the measurable impact on reducing pollution, energy usage and the school’s carbon footprint more broadly.

Head of Senior School, Heidi Armstrong explained, “The scheme involves the whole school community in showing how small changes in both mindset and behaviour can actually make a large and lasting impact. It’s the starting point for positive change not only in attitudes, but improvement to our environment both locally, and more widely.”

Putney High Junior School – walking and scooting to school.

Putney families have joined us in the commitment to fight pollution. Walking, scooting and using public transport to get to school are now the preferred methods of travel, so much so that we are among the top 10% of London schools to have been awarded a TFL gold accreditation.

Our commitment doesn’t end there. All year round, our design thinkers, Young Enterprise start-ups and would-be engineers are busy in the DT room and Putney’s new Innovation Centre, prototype testing and building the sustainable ideas of the future. Our Amazon Web design winners even created an app for recycling school uniform – a simple but effective idea!

Putney is a central London school and although nestled in a green enclave at the top of Putney Hill, we are always conscious of the air we breathe and the impact of nature and the environment on both our emotional and cognitive wellbeing.

The sustainable development of our new Athena Centre for Science, Music, Drama and Debating offered us the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at the school’s green infrastructure. With the help of a firm of sustainability architects and an environmental consultant, we undertook a study to learn how environmental factors might impact learning and behaviour and how bringing the natural world into the classroom could not only enhance air quality and environment, but even have the desirable by-product of improving mood and focus in lessons.

The importance of plants in cleaning the air has been known for a long time but we didn’t realise just how much until we had completed our research. Not only did the plants we brought into the classroom measurably enrich brain boosting oxygen, they also had a significant effect on wellbeing. Feedback from students and staff was overwhelmingly positive with 78 per cent of students reportedly “feeling healthier”, and not only did they feel better, they told us how they “loved working in the classrooms” and felt a real impact on their ability to concentrate in lessons.

Our Biophilic Classroom project was the first of its kind, winning us a coveted RHS Gold Medal when we were invited to share our findings in The Discovery Zone of the Chelsea Flower Show. Over 1000 copies of our Plants for Schools leaflet were taken away, giving other schools the simple tools to make the same improvements to their own environments.

Putney’s learning journey has been considerable and by no means ends there. This year we appoint our first Ecologist in Residence to help us build on the progress we have already made. We also look forward to co-hosting the GDST CareerStart event this year, focussing on ‘green careers’ and the related opportunities that exist in all industries and sectors, from law to consultancy and FMCG.

From our Junior ‘allotmenteers’ to our sixth form scientists and every eco-warrior in between, we are committed to making a difference, for this generation and those to come.