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Interview: Principal Justine Barlow - The Role of Educational Institutions in Creating a Healthier, More Sustainable Culture for Future Generations. By Jasmine Chetham

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Interview: Principal Justine Barlow - The Role of Educational Institutions in Creating a Healthier, More Sustainable Culture for Future Generations. By Jasmine Chetham

How have you seen attitudes towards the environment change in recent years, especially in relation to young people?

I’ve seen a sharper focus of students’ awareness of the environment, mostly in the world as a whole rather than closer to home; for example, students asked us to take them to the COP 26 conference up in Glasgow. But, although students know about recycling, the amount of waste and littering in college is still quite startling. I think the climate crisis is gathering more exposure worldwide because of the media but there’s still a lot we as a college do that we don’t publish. I know that the energy rating per building is Grade A, which is the best it can be, but students might not. We need to get better at communicating to the college community what we do. One thing I am doing from September is having one member of staff who will be an ambassador for sustainability and the climate.

Do you believe that all students have a good understanding of the climate crisis and the associated risks, for example, extreme weather events?

I think that is a yes and no answer because unfortunately there’s a lot of misrepresentation and scaremongering communicated in the media, which is very unhelpful. So, I think education is key. Yes, it’s important to know the damage being done to the planet, but the world is very resourceful - people have adapted before and we are again now. Going forwards, the shift from diesel, oil and gas will help our carbon footprint, but we just have to make sure that we are making informed choices, and we understand that some changes may be culturally challenging. In college we have the Eco Team as well as the Environment Officer; both are fantastic opportunities and starting points for students to really lead from the front. Unfortunately, many students have “jumped on the bandwagon” of things like plant-based foods which have quite a destructive impact on the environment. But, because they’re “fashionable”, a lot of businesses promote them instead of what is ethically or environmentally right. Like BP, who have used acres of desert for solar panels or companies who fly rubbish from country to country for “green” recycling processes. There’s a unit in Birmingham that burns rubbish in a way that doesn’t cause pollution, but there’s not enough to make it commercially viable, so they have to import rubbish from all over the world instead. Where’s the joined-up thinking in that?


That’s a good point. The next question is moving more towards a college focus: How is college prioritising education and action against climate change?

So, we have a number of fronts, including the Environment Officer, and in any project, refurbishment or build, the first port of call is always the environment and using sustainable materials. I think what I’ve taken from this discussion is that there needs to be more communication with students, so we can work together as a community, and the designated member of staff will be very important for that. Students should know about investments we’ve made, such as changing the lighting structure to LEDs. The Environment Officer could get some key people together and ask, “What have you done already?", and then we can see what they want changed and have a really robust, evidence-based action plan that can adapt to our ever-evolving situation. Notre Dame should always think about adaptions that would make a difference. We did have a suggestion that we could keep college bees, but then as the Principial I have to consider the risks and what we can do within a college setting. We don’t have anything directly or specifically related to the climate planned for the near future as everything at the moment is to do with the new build, which will use sustainable materials and an air-source heat pump to reduce gas usage. We will finish converting all the lights to LEDs and we’re working very closely with the catering contractor to look at efforts in that area. Everything that’s binned gets recycled, no matter which bin it goes into, which students probably don’t know. We’ve also installed bike sheds and hope to put some more up in the future.


Do you think you as a member of college staff could improve your encouragement of students to take their own action, especially with the new academic year and lower sixth on the horizon?

Every year we focus on behaviour and attitudes and all staff have high expectations, but unfortunately students don’t always listen. Students have to take responsibility, but we’re not a secondary school so we’re not going to stand over them and make them. I do ask people to tidy up after themselves and others but it’s not just my responsibility.


I know that when you had the COP 26 trip, there were more people wanting to go than could, and the Environment Officer was a popular role during the Student Exec election. Do you think that college could push more activities like these, which are still student lead but backed by college? 

As a college, we try to raise awareness of a lot of things, including the environment, and we were very fortunate that we could run the COP26 trip. Staff have to be willing to run it over their weekend, which isn’t something I can ask them to do. On the one hand, I can raise awareness, but I wouldn’t want to promote an event and then tell students they have to find their own way there, because that wouldn’t be fair. It’s more so about what we can control. If a group of students get together and clearly want to enact change, maybe talk at the staff briefing and have an action plan, we can work from that. Then if they pass it on to the next set of students, it won’t lose momentum or importance.  I’ve said since I got here four and a half years ago that there is a student award for the environment but not one student has come forward to do it.


I didn’t know there was an award for the environment. Could you explain a bit more, as it might be something people are interested in.

It’s called the Environment Award and there’s bronze, silver and gold. It has to be led by the students themselves, that’s the underpinning value of the award, and it cannot be led by staff. At my old college, they ran it for three or four years by passing on the baton each year. They did projects like checking if products sold in college were fairtrade, researching recycling and fundraising for clean water in international communities. I’m sure if you do a google search, you’ll find it.

If anyone has any further questions, by all means ask as I’m really keen to be involved. I use a lot of sustainable materials in my own home so it’s an issue very close to my own heart.

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