Throwaway culture in schools helps to produce the next generation of consumers

This week, the number of teenage males living in my house temporarily doubled. In addition to the loo-seat always being up, I found that the sheer amount of food packaging waste generated was really quite concerning and I couldn’t help but shift my home ‘planning’ so that meals were thought about in advance and every purchase was about buying in bulk, cheaply and with minimal packaging. I quite enjoyed the resulting efficiency which included making more of an effort to get these teenagers to pitch in with family meal time prep and clear-up as well as the inevitable crack-down on leaving food on the plate (intuitively, I instigated zero-tolerance on that one). Part of the process of slightly evolving my thinking was down to the fact that I simply could not afford, despite caring very much about every individual in the house, to pander to individual preferences or allow everyone to just sit back and let one person do all the work. Why? because the amount of adults in the house is fixed (2) and the amount of income is not just fixed, but reducing due to continual increases in the cost of living/taxation of working-age individuals. Also, I have working class roots and we working class believe in living within our means rather than getting ourselves into trouble through treating our kids like little emperors.

Mountain of school waste
An example of school waste

Naturally, I couldn’t help but turn my thoughts to waste in schools, primary schools in particular, and how the whole rhetoric about ‘needs of the child’ has driven and continues to drive the production of huge amounts of waste, and I’m including the waste of humans here too. Recently, we had a company come in to re-do all of the tens of wall displays around the school as part of a project that involves all of the children in the production of wall-art with a particular theme. Just producing all this art consumed enormous amounts of materials (vats and vats of glue, a mountain of tissue paper and newspapers) and adult energy (behaviour went to the wall) plus the company charged thousands for the privilege of designing the process for us all to do. Obviously, the children loved it and what was produced was inspiring and colourful, but I couldn’t help but feel a tad sad about all the waste, consumption of materials, energy and money thrown into this experience knowing that it would all be torn down again next year; I even felt guilty about the fact that so many parents took precious time off work to come in to assist the process. Is it really all worth it so that Ofsted can come in and be wowed by the wall-art, children can have a few days of riotous fun and the Art coordinator has evidence for her file in the section marked ‘Evidence of collaborative learning’? In all honesty, I do not feel comfortable with this situation at all, given that we all live in straightened times and are staring down the barrel of further economic hardship that will come regardless of which political party is in power at the time.

I can appreciate why leaders might choose these one-off, temporary and ‘wow’ experiences: everything must be a ‘thing’ these days and if something has been done regularly in the past, it’s nigh on impossible to cut it out without an uprising from the masses. We’ve been told that if we don’t have this regular project, then teachers will be faced with even more display boards that they must update regularly (because: Ofsted) with children’s work, so who am I to argue with that?

It’s not just the profligate waste of producing super-duper displays that is concerning though. It’s all the worksheets produced that are then either filed forever in a dusty file, or just thrown away in a fit of ‘I can’t cope with all the paper flapping about’. Then we have the white board pens and whiteboards, the electricity continuously sucked out of the grid to keep all those laptops, IWBs, lights on all the time and I start to wonder if it would be better to have chalkboards and textbooks again. You know, all this business of producing knowledge organisers? I also wonder whether a textbook could function in this way: I remember flicking through the textbooks when I was a child, like they were family albums, and reminding myself of lessons gone (with worked examples still there like memories of family get-togethers) as well as lessons to come.

Don’t get me started on all the food waste that ends up on the floor of the dining hall, thanks to the combination of universal free school meals and fussy children who have not been taught how to hold a knife and fork or behave in a civilised way at the dining table. Why do we even given them a pudding every day anyway when they don’t need all that extra energy? Most adults don’t eat a sweet course at lunch, except for Sunday lunches, so why the hell are we doing flippin’ three course meals avec a side salad for 5 year olds? All that time and energy that lunchtime supervisors expend, only for children to turn their noses up at it or just let it fall onto the floor. These days, we don’t make children eat everything on their plate and most adults would agree with this policy. However, this belief is informed by our own memories of being forced to eat sausages laden with gristle, boiled-to-death cabbage and lumpy mash, but children’s lunches are not like this anymore. Seriously, the school lunches these days are really interesting and tasty, but so much gets left. Cumulatively, the mountain of food waste is shocking to behold and an absolute insult to the staff who laboured so hard to prepare it, as well as the taxpayers (many of whom are on minimum wage) who gave up vital family income to source it all.

Technology, too, is consumed at a frightening rate, partly because purchasing is done by ill-informed individuals who are hood-winked by the ‘latest thing’. IPads are a case in point: very quickly, working memory becomes clogged up by constant updates and every teacher in the land learns the hard way that they can’t be used for ‘research’, since the images listed are filled with words and pictures that children should not see.

Then we have the consumption of humans and human energy. I’m talking about continuously churning through staff and providing ever more human resources to tend to the needs of smaller and smaller groups until eventually, in year 6, practically everyone’s got their own tutor. Children running out of class or being violent? No problem! Just hire some more people to follow them around or give them extra play sessions and self-esteem groups! All this happens instead of using cost-free/lower-cost systems such as competition, regular testing, routine, strong discipline, rules about transition and conduct in corridors etc. This situation is the most bonkers of all and I find the fact that practically everyone in education just accepts it as normal very difficult to comprehend. All these school leaders and consultants on twitter bleating that schools are not being provided with ever more NQTs to burn through and cast aside? Where are the leaders banging on about investing in their staff rather than campaigning to have supply agency fees reduced so they can go on cherry-picking their way through human beings?

What is driving all this waste? Certainly, everyone in the UK knows that the public sector is famously inefficient and wasteful and I guess this would also be the case for education (those who have only ever worked in this sector will never see it because they have no frame of reference). However, there is something more and it is to do with the ideology of blindly committing to spending on children because, well, they’re children. This whole notion of getting ourselves into debt (the same is happening in families; think about all those evening hours and resources previously reserved for investing in the husband and wife relationship, given over to yet more time and fun with the kidz) for the sake of lavishing more experiences, resources and energy on children as if their status trumps all other concerns is plain wrong, not least because children quickly internalise that they don’t need to give a shit about the environment, their surroundings or how hard the adults are working to make their lives exciting, free of worry and untainted by the need to lift a finger to help themselves or others. I find it ironic that the dominant progressives in education are typically left-wing and anti-capitalism, yet cannot recognise that their ideology is the most effective way to generate the next generation of unthinking and selfish consumers of resources, time, energy and fellow human beings; basically, little capitalists hell bent on promoting themselves and only thinking of themselves.

Well, I for one am not down with that.

So, what’s the answer? Resources that are re-usable, investment in CPD and whole-class teaching with catch up, textbooks and strong discipline, obviously! There is a better way and I believe we need to let go of the overly emotional belief that if it’s a ‘nice idea’ or ‘for the children’, then it must be pursued regardless of cost.

Who’s with me?



5 thoughts on “Throwaway culture in schools helps to produce the next generation of consumers

  1. This makes me think – I thought that schools were improving in this regard…

    There is much to be said for a more sustainable school culture. Certainly food waste, electricity/tech waste can be monitored easily. And don’t get me started on those huge art displays… definitely not for Ofsted!

    So we need to improve – not just because of budget but also because we do need to set an example to the next generation. In primary let the children get involved – weigh food waste and make it a competition to improve. Grow food that can be used. School council can monitor electricity / laptops / water etc…


  2. I couldn’t agree with you more, Quirky, on every point! Sometimes, I worry that educationalists too often throw the baby out with the bath water.


  3. In tax funded organisations, there is virtually no incentive to use money efficiently. If you don’t spend your budget, it’s cut the next year.

    The way to thrive in the public sector is to find ever more ways of spending other people’s hard earned cash. Then whenever anyone threatens your empire, scream about the evil Tory cuts that are hurting children.


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