Home is where the heat is – a journey to greener homes in Lewisham


We are two households lucky enough to win a Lewisham-wide competition to develop the energy efficiency of our homes and to create a living demonstration of what can be done to  improve energy ratings, save on carbon emissions and save money on heating bills!

We both have strong environmental values and, consequently, careers, but we have very different homes and households. Zaria lives in a Victorian end-of-terrace with her partner and his 23-year-old son and the newest addition to the family: baby Sequoia, born in Lewisham hospital on boxing day! Paul lives in a 1930s semi-detached with his partner and 10-year-old daughter. Our contrasting ideas and experiences of the transformation of our homes can be followed here throughout 2015-16.

Global learning in a multi-cultural context: the map is not the territory

globejigsawI’ve long had a fascination with maps and I’ve hoarded them all my life. I keep scrappy tourist maps of distant cities, walking maps, and, best of all, ordnance survey maps of large swathes of our Island. Their precision and detail makes me wonder at the ingenuity of humanity every time I use them. Please may the SatNav, GPS or smart phone never replace them entirely.

Perhaps the most interesting things about maps, however, is what is absent on them. When thinking about global learning, I find maps a useful metaphor for terrain and representation: for so many people, and schools, the map of the world is a starting point to think about global issues, and we all map the world mentally from our own country and context.

plasticshowercurtainSee an enterprising Oxfordshire secondary teacher’s shower-curtain world map with myself in the foreground, and the original image on their fb page here. She claims it cost £11.99 on amazon and it was among her top resources.

The government has recently changed the landscape of global learning by allocating funding to embed it in schools, purportedly 50% of English state schools over the next 5 years. A worthy ambition, and apparently it’s going well, several months in. The GLP offers cash and expertise support for schools to form local learning networks to enhance global learning in a whole-school way. More about the global learning programme here.

A key aim of the GLP is to take learners beyond a simplistic understanding of developing countries as poor and deserving of pity and charity, implying that we in this country are lucky and superior. This is a worthy aim, but I feel that in some ways the current ‘terrain’ of global learning stops short of addressing the increasing number of children learning in incredibly global and diverse contexts in our cities and what this means for them.

What I frequently see is suburban, provincial or rural contexts mapping global learning as  teaching white British children to see outside their own environments and learn empathy with and understanding of the rest of the world. It’s seen as a revelation that other cultures have similarities with ours and that communication and common humanity can win out. It’s exemplified by this Connecting Classrooms film here.

I work in London where, according to the last census, 1 in 3 of us were born outside the UK, and according to the BBC 300 different languages are spoken in London schools, suggesting large numbers of children don’t speak much English at home. Here is a fascinating interactive map provided by data.london.gov, which does not do anything so crass as to provide a blunt number of languages spoken overall by London school pupils, suffice to say a large number of London’s children speak English at school and other languages at home. Mulgrave primary, which is hosting the fantastic ‘Global Voices’ event in June, please forgive the plug, represents 46 language speakers among its pupil body.


These children probably know more about different parts of the world than most of the teachers do, and are well beyond the concept that some countries are ‘poor’ and need pity and charity. For them, global learning is probably a daily experience of integrating school and home, travelling between two worlds and two cultures every day. For white British children, the experience of learning alongside children who bring such difference into the classroom must be equally engaging, or perhaps strange.

I wonder if a possible key to global learning in a highly diverse context is addressing difference and different ways of seeing and thinking. I can think of some ideas which are outside the usual canon:

1. Discussing how the way you speak channels and influences the way we think, or what we can say; discussing how gender is treated in different languages and how English is a relatively genderless language. Does this mean that we have a more gender-neutral society? Colours in different languages can be different, as are ideas about love and life.

2. Mapping family relationships as they really are in your own country, rather than in the euro-centric ‘Mummy-Daddy-baby’ nuclear family model. Many African cultures barely distinguish between siblings and cousins, for example, and in Asia it may be common to be largely brought up by grandparents if parents are both working.

3. Discussing different physical behaviour in different cultures, which can be a great way to link with other important discussions about appropriate touching, etc. In southern Europe, children are treated physically like babies until a later age: they are picked up, tickled, pinched, cuddled and will sit on adults’ laps until they are at least 8 or 9, while in the UK children have much more physical autonomy at a younger age, and no-one would cuddle a child they didn’t know well over the age of about four. If children discuss how their friends and family members behave with them in a safe discussion context, it may also flag up where culturally-appropriate treatment of children may cross the line into something social services may need to know about.

4. Being explicit about how living in different cultures can be difficult, can stress children more than their indigenous classmates, and can indeed change who they are. Children who are bi-lingual might like to talk about whether they have different personalities in their two languages, or if they think their family-members do.

5. When I worked in China I addressed the concept of culture and nation in family terms with my highly brainwashed and nationalistic students. You love your parents, but you may also see their faults and you don’t expect others to love them. The love is personal, individual and unconditional. It does not mean, however, that you can’t see your parents’ faults, and they yours. If we treat our cultures and our diverse cultural allegiances in the same critical way, can we become better citizens or sit easier as someone belonging to more than one culture?

6. David Selby was a fantastic global educator back in the days when multiculturalism was less prevalent and our education system was less chaotic. Unfortunately for us, he emigrated to Canada, but here is a downloadable piece of his work with lots of diversity-relevant, anti-discriminatory, ground-breaking tolerance and anti-racism activities which could be used with a wide age-range. Some of them are truly risky activities for today’s climate, if you try them in your class please share experiences! Promise to put all responses on my blog and Facebook page.

Global learning can in these various ways flow into every area of both the curriculum, and a ‘broad and balanced’ learning experience generally, taking the global into the personal and showing pupils in fact how very global they are. In fact, if we are to educate children for the future, one of the things that we can probably be almost certain of is that global interrelationships and globalisation are going to intensify and increase over time, not lessen: could it be said that global learning is very very far beyond a charity mentality and in fact encompasses all areas of good education practice.

In some ways I’ve developed these ideas through the very global life I’ve lived. I spent two years in Papua Guinea as a toddler: monsoons, rainforests and people dressed in mud were among my first memories. As an adult I sometimes managed to ‘pass’ as an Italian such was my integration into Northern Italian culture: probably the closest I came to the immigrant experience. On VSO in China I lived with enormous cultural differences every day, and never ‘passed’ for a moment: those differences still shocked me on a regular basis, but they were always rich stimulus for working with my Chinese students, to whom cultural diversity was almost unknown.

These global experiences have made me happy to settle and put down roots in South East London, and to love the ground I walk on and plant my vegetables in, for I have seen how much the whole world is reflected in a raindrop and how deeply interconnected the people and our beautiful planet are. Making a map of this kind of learning would make  a mockery of it.

footnote: information on London’s ethnic landscape accessed on the ONS website here


Outdoor Learning: what’s it all about?

Children from St Matthew's infant school on Downside common

Children from St Matthew’s infant school on Downside common

I’ve always considered Outdoor Learning ‘a good thing’, although it’s never been my core focus in my work. I’ve enjoyed it myself, but in terms of social and sustainable change, I’ve hitherto considered it a means to an end.

facebook_imageI’m organising ‘Beyond the Classroom’, and you can see more about that on our facebook page and buy a ticket here: http://bit.ly/1lnWJEg 

So, healthy, then, to collaborate with an expert practitioner and thinker in the subject, and give it a bit more focussed thought. Here are some:

1. If you do Outdoor Learning, is it just doing what you would be doing indoors, outdoors?

2. Is it diluting or diverting the proper purpose of Outdoor Learning to link it to academic outcomes?

3. Can you make a case for Outdoor Learning as a discipline in itself supporting Sustainability as a general concept?

These bring up more complex questions. Firstly, a key thing about being outside is sensory: we have to use and move our bodies and senses outside, and our learning, if that’s what we’re doing, is much richer for it. The kinaesthetic learners amongst us thrive outdoors because they can fidget and fizz with energy and it’s fine, in fact, it helps them learn. I am a huge kinaesthetic learner, I’ve discovered with age, and all I can do is congratulate my incredibly resilient and focussed younger self for sitting through thirteen years of schooling which was mostly inside, sat down, and actually managing to learn things.

Back to the here and now: what would Ofsted think if you were doing proportion and fractions with bits of rope in the playground? Can children play chess with dustbins and traffic cones? How cold can children get before their parents complain? What’s Ofsted’s opinion of Outdoor Learning, anyway? Turns out, quite good: in 2008 they did a small report, (intriguingly subtitled ‘how far should you go?’) and concluded that where planned and implemented appropriately, Learning Outside the Classroom could significantly support children’s learning and personal, social and emotional development. They did also conclude that too often the learning objectives were not precisely defined; they didn’t really know what they were doing or why, is what Ofsted meant by that.

This brings me to question 2: Is it diluting the proper purpose of Outdoor Learning to only link it to academic outcomes?’. Ofsted are, obviously, only interested in children’s academic learning, although they do reference ‘personal, social and emotional development’, so it’s clearly not just about learning biology. Even Ofsted quietly acknowledges that time outdoors has an emotional impact on us. How, then, to plan for it, develop ‘learning objectives’ or evaluate its impact on children?

Sam playing in the fountainThe Outdoors communicates without speaking, and touches all your senses. The Outdoors makes you aware of your animal body, gives you your strength, your spirit, your energy and your oneness with the world. All children play absolutely spontaneously and creatively in natural spaces, and if you watch them or know them, you’ll know beyond any shadow of a doubt that it’s good for them, in all sorts of ways, although if you’re a parent or supporter of children, you’ll probably not know how to quantify or describe fully those ‘ways’. They just are. Planning learning objectives is irrelevant.

Which leads to a different idea of Outdoor Learning: one where children learn in an unstructured, self-guided, spontaneous sort of a way, and the ideas around their learning are not so harshly judged. Forest schools embodies this approach, and it’s encouraging that more and more schools are incorporating Forest schools into their curriculum. I’ve searched for official numbers, and find that Tim Gill, in ‘Sowing the Seeds’ estimates 100 to 150 initiatives in London, when that was published in 2011. Anyone who lets their kids run wild in the woods, build a den, climb trees and jump into rivers from them is supporting this. It’s more ‘being’ than ‘learning’.

But to my third question: Can you make a case for Outdoor Learning as a discipline in itself supporting Sustainability as a general concept? This is a sticky one. I recall the opening few minutes of ‘An inconvenient truth’, when Al Gore remembers his local area: a river, some trees trailing in it, and kind of sighs and murmurs ‘oh yeah, I forgot about this’. What he’s highlighting is the way the natural world brings us back to another level of ourselves. One without bullish*t, or the creases and fuss of adult urban life. I think the case partly rests with David Attenborough: “no-one will protect what they don’t first care about”. A true sense of belonging to nature and appreciating it physically, corporeally and directly must be central to a sense of the duty to protect nature. Anecdotally, I’ve found that people who are truly battling the hardest in progress towards environmental change have often been brought up in close contact with nature, a fact supported by Dr David Dixon, who researched what motivated head teachers engage fully with Sustainability in their schools in his doctoral thesis of 2010 ‘Developing a Green Leader model’.

beechesThis post is becoming long and risks turning into an ill-thought-out doctoral thesis in itself, so I’ll leave further postulating to subsequent posts. Suffice to say I’ve been motivated and stimulated by my closer contact with the world of Outdoor Learning.

Social bio-mimicry: fitting in or standing out


Can you spot the alien invader? The links between fairy stories and tall tales, and fears of alien invaders.

In all, lots of media fuss about Bulgarians and Romanians swarming onto these shores before Christmas. It was helpful in that it raised and opened out a difficult issue, and I think for the first time I heard people saying openly that it wasn’t necessarily racist to be circumspect about immigration. Personally, I think anything that opens up an issue, dissects its subtleties and makes acceptable a range of opinions is helpful: unquestioned hegemonies can’t help move ideas forward, in my opinon.

Interesting to note, then, that, according to ‘workpermit.com’ here, quoting the Daily Express, apparently, the number of Romanians who have arrived on these hallowed shores since 1st January, 2014 is precisely….25 people. Big fuss about nothing, then. All this has been more on my mind since helping the fabulous Mulgrave Primary school staff run an inset about global learning, focussing on immigration. Given that a huge number of the pupils and a fair number of staff are of immigrant origin, it’s quite an emotive issue but despite resistence, the teachers Mrs Mensah and Miss Abas stuck to their guns and won the day: the session was enjoyed and considered to be of benefit.

Moving on, however, to the other integrated immigrants: the parakeets. They are starting to visit my local park, and no, they don’t fit in and they’re not very welcome. There are estimated to be around 30,000 parakeets now living in London’s green spaces, which crowd out the local species and compete for food sources. I’m not sure at what point they are to be considered a genuine eco-threat: they are not currently culled and are continuing to reproduce frighteningly.

Diversity is a key concept of sustainability, the idea being that a diverse system is more stable: where one idea/species/nationality fails or disappears, there are others to fill the vaccum. If we want diversity of opinions in our heads, diversity of cultures in our cities and diversity of species in our parks, is there a limit to how much diversity we can understand? Do we dissipate our identities with too much diversity. Both culture and ecology throw up uncomfortable questions about who and what exactly belongs here and what we should do about it if we decide they don’t.

No sex please, we’re Japanese

Japan pompom: elderly Japanese ladies in fantastic shape!This was one of the most fascinating things on TV lately: and addressing an issue relevant to our global future in starkly short-sighted way:

Japan’s population is declining rapidly, and it has a huge ageing population, poignantly illustrated by the fact that sales of adult incontinence nappies outsell the baby variety apparently. This is presented as a tragedy in this programme, on the grounds that the economy will suffer if not enough young people rise through the ranks and pay the taxes needed to support the pension-burden of the old.

We’ve heard this in our country too, but for different reasons…

What shocked me about this was that the whole-nation economic threat of falling population was seen as such a massive problem (words like ‘implosion’ and ‘catastrophe’ used), while the tragedy of young people unable to relate to each other and, dear god, find each other attractive or interesting was shown as a bit weird, but not nearly of the same gravity.

The loss of love and lust taste  of lost humanity, a weakening of spirit or soul or something: a cultural or human heartbeat. Of course data is given about what appear to be the crushing forces of traditional and restrictive attitudes to women’s roles and rights, as well as a corporate culture that has no flexibility towards working parents, combined with the overwhelming role that technology plays in Japanese culture, but as the culturally-connected reader may know, there is currently an exhibition of sixteenth century Japanese erotic art at the British Museum, which apparently illustrates a breadth and freedom of sexual expression and imagination far beyond European ideas at the time. Lovelessness is clearly not something rising from the roots of Japanese culture.

But the assumption that population growth must be sustained permeates this programme, without any question that perhaps, just perhaps, 140 million people in a country just slightly larger than Germany and only 50% larger than the UK, is too many, and too crowded. While it’s a sad situation for many Japanese women who remain involuntarily childless, this trend is surely going to build a more sustainable future for the Japanese people: fewer resources to use up, fewer new homes, less pollution and consumption…the rest of the world is panicking about our huge numbers, are not the Japanese inadvertently doing the right thing?

The economic and social microcosm of Japan illustrates the unsustainability of an economic model which has to grow, along with its population, in order to function at all. And when it leads to the loss of interest in relationships in the young, surely they know that they’re in big trouble, and it’s not the economy that’s the tragedy, it’s the loss of love.

I feel for them, and I fear for them.