Maschsee European environmental school

By Jörg Bürmann-Janssen, June 2020

The Hanover-Maschsee free Waldorf school is one of the oldest Waldorf schools in Germany. Sustainability was a principle guiding its actions from the beginning, long before the concept became a political buzzword. But what does sustainability mean in 2020? What are the expectations of pupils, teachers and parents when they look at the subject in the time of Greta and the “climate crisis”?

Anyone entering the extensive school grounds on Maschsee lake will be surprised by the green idyll in the middle of the state capital of Lower Saxony: the biodynamic school garden with greenhouses and class beds is home to bees, chickens and sheep; the small picturesque half-timbered house not far from the area for parking bikes and scooters houses the nature workshop; and – just a stone’s throw away – the school’s own tiny “wood” begins which the nursery uses for outside play.

The pupils here take responsibility for their direct environment from an early age – such as in caring for the animals by the younger ones or looking after the grounds by the older classes. “All of these things, together with the way the subject is dealt with in lessons, creates an awareness of nature, how it is cared for and developed, but also a feeling for ecological cycles and the progression of the seasons which is an integral part of our curriculum from the beginning,” says public relations officer Astrid Homeyer.

Indeed, the Waldorf school on Maschsee lake enjoys a good reputation in the Hanover school landscape in matters of sustainability and environmental protection. Probably the best known example for sustainable development is the company “Ganz real”, a registered cooperative in which pupils are engaged in various fields – for example in the pupil shop or the textile and bicycle workshop – for the benefit of the school while learning in an everyday setting about ecological, sustainable and social economic activity. “Ganz real” has received many awards – thus in 2009 the UNESCO Prize on Education for Sustainable Development, in 2012 the Quality Certificate for Sustainability of the regional school authority at competence level silver and then in 2014 in gold.

Since 2016, the school has been allowed to call itself “Environmental School in Europe/International Agenda 21 School”. Such public recognition is important. That is something of which teacher Ingeborg Petersen is also well aware, who has been responsible for the success of the pupil cooperative for over ten years: “We go for prizes primarily because the pupils have to leave the self-contained cosmos of their business to do so and learn to present their projects in public. At the same time we hope, of course, that the effect of our concept works as an inspiration for other parts of the school.”

Being sustainable requires investment

Because far from everything is yet in the green zone although the many awards might make one think so. But in fact it is sufficient if a so-called environmental school displays sustainability in two categories – here the school garden and Real shop. Then it is allowed to use that official designation for publicity purposes. But everyone is conscious that this is not enough. And therefore the school has invested heavily in recent years to renovate the individual buildings in the school grounds sustainably and with environmental awareness: conversion to energy-saving bulbs or LED lighting, automated heating control, replacing windows and the use of district heating. And the school has just introduced recycled paper.

“The basis for our investment was an energy report with the help of which we were able to make long-term savings,” explains Detlev Schiewe, board member and chief executive of the school. “Other proposals had a payback period of forty to fifty years, such as the internal insulation of our old building for example. We did not implement such investments, even if they would have helped against climate change.”

In total, the school intends to spend about six million euros on maintenance measures in the period from 2015 to 2025. Forty percent of this goes to energy saving, estimates Schiewe. “Our investment is already considerable but, not least under the influence of the current climate debate, the voices who want us to go further in this field are growing louder.” He is referring to the Fridays for Future movement which within a short period of time has also established itself in Waldorf schools as a firm influence.

That is confirmed by class teacher Marcel Lorenz: “In my observation many pupils have become significantly more sensitive with regard the topic of the environment and sustainability. Sometimes it is just small things, such as whether the children should now buy loose-leaf binders made of cardboard to avoid plastic. On the other hand, Lorenz says, there are also those who do not get involved or demonstrate on Fridays because their parents continue to fly away on holiday so that any contribution would be pointless.

Lasse Ludewig (class 11) was involved from the beginning with Fridays for Future and, for all the criticism he might have in individual questions, considers his school as quite a model for environmental protection: “What we do very well, for example, is the food in the school kitchen – regional, low on meat and with an organic proportion of over sixty percent,” the pupil says in praise. “We consider it worrying, however, that the school still does not make use of green electricity.” Detlev Schiewe explains why the school has not yet taken this relatively simple step by pointing to the lack of leeway in the school budget – conventional electricity is simply cheaper.

In fact the school does have a small photovoltaic system. “A significant obstacle for us is the underfunding of independently run schools in Lower Saxony. Some of the other federal states provide higher contributions to material costs, for example for new buildings and building maintenance – we don’t get anything.” At the same time the fees cannot just be arbitrarily raised. “Thus in theory every euro we invest in sustainability is at the expense of teacher salaries.”

Schiewe does the calculations: “If we were to receive similar financial help to a Waldorf school in Hamburg say, we could easily reduce school fees by ten to fifteen percent and at the same time raise teacher salaries by ten to fifteen percent.” To this extent the school had to prioritise its expenditures against the background of competition for teaching staff from other schools if it wanted to be able to fulfil its educational task.

Ecological model?

It is not, however, the declared aim of the school to turn itself into an ecological model. Indeed, the terms sustainability or environmental protection are not even mentioned in its guiding principles. “It doesn’t have to, either. Our school has always been sustainable, even at the time when this was not something demanded by the zeitgeist,” says press officer Homeyer, “but the necessity to take comprehensive action in this respect has without doubt clearly increased.” But it was equally important to strengthen the awareness of a sustainable lifestyle in general.

That, too, is the opinion of Tonja Mannstedt, mother of a twelve-year-old daughter: “The subject has to be firmly anchored in what the school does because this knowledge is of central importance in view of the challenges from climate change. Our children have to be empowered to be involved in shaping the future in order to contribute as adults to a just and environmentally compatible development.” Here class teacher Marcel Lorenz sees Waldorf schools in particular as “having a responsibility to act as a model for society.”

All focus on sustainability, then? Yes. But Detlev Schiewe also points out “that we should not lose sight of the other burning topics which are currently of concern in our society. I’m thinking above all of all forms of right-wing extremism, racism and anti-Semitism. We have to face up to these social challenges comprehensively and consistently in the school as well.”

About the author: Dr. Jörg Bürmann-Janssen is a sociologist and is involved in the Public Relations Working Group of the Hannover-Maschsee Free Waldorf School.

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