Students take the lead to spread an eco-schools initiative in Hungary

An eco-schools programme in Hungary is so successful it has taken on its own momentum with students leading its growth.

The flexible programme, developed by the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research and Development (HIERD), was established in 2000 with 40 pilot schools. It uses a whole-school approach to introduce the principles of sustainability in a practical way as well as through study subject matter.

Team Leader and Senior Researcher of the Eco-Schools Programme, Attila Varga said: “The best surprise is to find that what we thought of as a top down initiative is more often than not led by children actively wanting to join. Since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, society in Hungary is getting greener which helps enormously as more and more schools want to feel active in this field. We even have an environmental sustainability directorate in the President’s office!”

Hungary has particular environmental challenges. Currently poor air quality is the focus, with the problem often worse in villages than in the cities because people burn wood and rubbish for heating.

The Eco-Schools programme makes educational establishments more sustainable and embeds environmental issues in the school work plan. It is already installed in a quarter of Hungary’s school, or more precisely, by the end of 2017, 1134 Hungarian schools held an Eco-School title with 350,012 pupils and 34,890 teachers reached.

Schools volunteer to join the network and work towards the Eco-School title beginning with a complete and detailed assessment of the school environment and pedagogy. 

“We provide a flexible framework and points system for schools which differ obviously depending on context. A village school may get points for creating a school garden while an urban school may get its points for water-saving techniques,” said Mr Varga.

What they all have to provide is an annual action plan and then continuous evaluation of the success of their schemes. Children are involved from the beginning through deciding where their studies will focus up to the development of a student council to undertake parts of the self-evaluation and assessment.

At the staff level each employee of the school is involved in the development of the vision of the school. In teacher education, the teaching aids and in-service trainings of the programme support student engagement in creating experience-based learning environments.

Activities range from excursions to environmental projects and exhibitions made for the local community to school patrols where students check and collect data on energy consumption and local Green Parliaments where students are involved in real decision-making with local town halls. The programme also extends beyond the school gates. Since 2015 criteria for the title includes community service which empowers teenagers to transform themselves and the community they live in.

“Above all, schools have to continue developing. We say that no school is ever ‘finished’ in its sustainable development work,” Mr Varga said.

So successful has the programme been that it has been extended to the Green Kindergarten Programme and also reaches up to higher education and teacher training.

“Yes, we have a little brother or sister of the Eco-school network which involves 1,000 kindergartens,” said Mr Varga. “It helps that kindergarten is compulsory for 3 to 6-year olds in Hungary and already has an emphasis on outdoor activities. In a sense it is even easier to include ESD in working with younger children as study is more flexible and freeform.”

Activities for younger children include forest kindergartens where children spend several days outdoors learning about plants and animals. Approaching local traditions at festivals like Christmas in an environmentally-friendly way through making presents is also an important way to introduce sustainability related issues for children.

“The programme is successful but there is still a lot of work to be done. The long-term goal is to reach all Hungarian schools. Most importantly, we are working to change young people’s mindsets from pessimistic to optimistic. We tell them the future is not decided, it is up to you,” said Mr Varga.