Staff and pupils want Port Regis school to become carbon neutral by 2025. Alfred visited and heard how this ambitious project could benefit other local schools, the village of Motcombe and could safeguard some of Britain’s rarest trees.
The new term is underway at Port Regis School. James Hardy’s desk is filled with the teaching and administrative duties that come with his Head of Science role. Nevertheless, he’s voluntarily increased his workload significantly. He’s announced plans for the school to become carbon neutral in six years.
“I’ve never actually done anything to change how a school structure works. This is my first real attempt,” said James. “If you actually look in terms of the independent sector, no school is pushing themselves on a sustainability agenda. We are in a position where we can do more. It’s stupid not to try and put something in place,” he said, adding, “This, speaking personally, is a moral issue.”
Port Regis School has some advantages over some school sites. They have a lot of land – 140 acres. That means there is room for sustainability projects. “There’s so much space, so we can do things. If we want to put in an orchard, we’ve got a field up there where we can. It comes with other battles, because they like it as a country park with cut grass. It is changing the perspectives of how land is used. And that’s the challenge at times,” James explained, as we strode over to a modern, two-storey brown brick and dark glass teaching block set alongside a pond.
“The windows automatically open if it is too hot and close if it is too cold. It’s all automated. The heating is zero carbon and electricity use in here is very low,” said James, explaining how the school has already invested in energy-saving measures. Lights are turned off when sensors ‘think’ the room is empty. “If there’s no movement in here for thirty seconds, it turns off. You’ll be teaching and if the pupils are busy working, the lights turn off and you have to get one of the children to jump around and wave their arms, so the lights come back on,” laughed James.
This energy-saving technology is easily incorporated into a bespoke, new building, but the original mansion’s listed status presents a sustainability challenge. “We can’t change the windows because of its listing. You find the windows left open all of the time because the kids open them and leave them.” So, the school has made energy saving into a competitive challenge, motivating its pupils towards an eco-friendly mindset. “The house that saves the most gets little prizes. We back the money saved to put back into the project,” said James.
James is under no illusion – it is going to require a concerted effort to make this large site, with its many old buildings and term-time residential accommodation, carbon neutral. “To find ways to heat buildings that don’t use oil and gas is going to be very challenging. We’ve got initial costing of about £2 million that we can’t just pay overnight. We’ve got to find ways to fund that and make it possible. The bigger, older buildings lose a lot more heat than the newer buildings. Anything that’s been built in the last six years has been built with sustainability in mind,” he said. And, of course, there’s the pool. “The swimming pool is big user.”
In LEA schools, most pupils have an understanding of climate issues. I asked him whether Port Regis pupils, some of whom come from wealthy families or live abroad, shared environmental concerns. “We asked the children who wanted to volunteer. We’ve got 250 children here and I was hoping for 60 to 80 volunteers.190 of the children volunteered to do different projects. I was initially sceptical because they live lifestyles where they are cocooned from what’s happening. Them wanting to be involved was really quite good. The parents that we have often jet off on two holidays a year. Getting them involved has been really quite good, too.”
James says just because Port Regis is a fee-paying preparatory school, doesn’t automatically mean that cash is available for these sustainability measures. “Private schools are essentially businesses. It’s no good just to say we need to do this, because of the scientific research of what’s happening across the world. You’ve got to make a marketing and financial case for it working,” he said. But James says it wasn’t hard convincing the decision-makers at school. “The parents are asking about it. It’s in their consciousness.”
As part of this process, the school will try to reduce food miles by putting provision of fruit, veg and other foodstuffs out to tender. They will name their price and ask local suppliers to meet that cost. “It’s about localising it, so we minimise transport and plastic. That’s hopefully going to roll out in September,” said James.
Some food produce is already being grown on-site in a small way. James showed me the herb garden, next to a stretch of bee-filled lavender plants. Railway sleepers had been used to retain a trough of soil backing onto a brick wall. “All of this was concrete before. We’re producing all of the herbs for the kitchens here, rather than importing it. This is our first step. They have taken off really well. We’ve got sage, coriander and thyme. We’ve got some quite unusual herbs, because the diversity part of our project is to get rare things going. The kids built all this, not us,” said James. “A group of twenty children wanted to build something and this was their initial project.”
More significant than herbs, in terms of carbon absorption, the school is committed to planting more trees. Every child that leaves Port Regis will have one planted in their name. That will mean around sixty new trees each year and James says they intend to backdate this planting.
“People who left in previous years can write and say they would like to contribute a tree. We’ve got 115 trees ordered. They will go in during September. We’re also starting to collect our own trees and saplings. We have built sapling nurseries. We are looking a hazel, willow and silver birch – trees that can be harvested and used. We’ve also got some rare trees too, a Holm oak, which we’re also trying to cultivate.”
James pointed to a small, rather weedy-looking sapling. “There’s only, I think, about ten of these particular types of oaks in the country.” James then pointed to a fully-grown version in the distance. “It’s a Lucombe oak. Part of the project is biodiversity. We’re in a site here where we can encourage rare species to grow.”
We walked on through the school’s woodlands. It’s an incredible teaching resource where pupils can learn about biodiversity. “We’ve got all three types of snakes here, owls and bats. You’ll see the odd bat box. There are many strands to the project,” James said, as we trudged through the leafy carpet. “There’s biodiversity, which is increasing the number of species we’ve got across the site. There’s the environment, which is the tree planting and how we look after what we’ve got. We also have energy, water waste, plastics and communication, which is how we’re telling people what we’re doing. Food waste is another key one.”
In a clearing at the other side of the leaf cover, James showed me where they hope to erect up to three polytunnels to experiment with food production. Next to it, they will generate power. “This is the proposed area for the solar farm. It is an acre-and-a-half. In five years, you’ll see polytunnels there,” he said, pointing to the left, before indicated to the right, “And you’ll see a solar farm going across here. There should be enough to provide electricity for the site and extra, which can go to the village or can go to the local community,” he explained.
This could be a gain for Motcombe. “Motcombe Primary School is just over that hedge. It’s a link that you could make.” Just this one aspect of the project has required detailed research and brought many questions. “How do you go about financing it? You produce a surplus of energy over the day. How do you store it at night? I’ve always thought batteries would be the way but there are different storage solutions that can solve the problem better than you think,” said James.
Even though this project is pioneered by a private school, James is keen to share best practice. “I want to expand this to other local primary schools. We’ve set up a template for the various stages so other schools can now follow. There are programmes like the Eco Schools award. We’ve worked out the criteria that we need to get certain ‘flags’ and we can pass that on. There are the Surfers Against Sewage awards for the war on plastics. We’ve got resources, to show people how to do that.”
James says Port Regis has created a template for sustainability measures that other schools could adopt. He accepts that no two schools are alike, and they would need to adapt the Port Regis experiences to meet their needs.
“Each school will have different resources and different ways of doing it. I used to be a governor at Ludwell Primary School. They couldn’t follow our model. They are far-thinking, with solar panels on the roof, and they’ve thought about being more sustainable. It’s starting the ball rolling. Once you’ve got an impetus behind the children, staff and parents, it becomes difficult for the factors that don’t want to do it, usually bursars and financial people, to stop it. It’s become impossible for them to ignore,” said James.
In an hour, James had shared many places on site and numerous plans integral to achieving their bold target. He’s not daunted by the size of the task. He’s energised by what’s already been achieved. “I’ve done more in one term than I thought it would ever be possible to do,” he said. Roll on the next term.