It is a grey, drizzly day in January and the Year 5 pupils at St Joseph's School are worried about one of their local rubbish bins. It may have been one of the smart so-called heritage design containers on a spot many of them pass every day, but its disappearance is causing consternation because the pupils cared for the receptacle very much. It was a St Joseph's bin carrying its own unique St Joseph's designed posterlogo: "If You're Near A Bin Put It In", with an accompanying frieze of offending rubbish.
Moreover, thanks to a borough-wide environmental scheme dedicated to improving life along the A1 as it makes its 10-kilometre way across the London borough of Islington, it was one of six bins the children had been entirely instrumental in locating in their area. And now, on the morning they've gone out to assess the effectiveness of their decisions - the bins'
impact on litter levels - one has entirely vanished.
Happily, the mystery only emerges at the end of the "bin re-visiting"
mission, which has in all other respects been highly successful, with assurances the missing bin will be replaced. All bins demonstrated lots of use and levels of street litter were considerably down from last year, when the children started doing litter measurement surveys on their patch.
But there are other causes for concern. "This one is covered in graffiti,"
says Tanya (10). "I bet people won't use it so much if it is scribbled all over."
Her observation generates a chorus of demands for the correct spelling of "graffiti", which is needed for the comment boxes the children have to fill in recording today's field work. It's clear that the children have become particularly sensitive to the issue and have developed a strong degree of protectiveness about the appearance of their area. "People will judge where we live and it will have an effect on our school," says Semrawit (9).
Also very noticeable are the high order discussions happening in every group as the children try to work out why it is some spots are more littered than others. "This is a fabulous project," says Margaret Caistor, the borough's geography inspector. "There is hardly a part of the key stage 2 syllabus it fails to touch."
Particularly praiseworthy, she suggests are the practical mapping skills it helps the children practise - getting them to consolidate their orientation abilities and also introducing symbol work and building a strong sense of the inter-relationship of factors and processes that determine the world around them. "But, for me," she adds, "the most important lesson they have learned is the fact that they can be a part of the geographical process, actually bringing about positive environmental change - something that is a core component of the syllabus, but one that can be hard to convey."
Margaret points out that while this is a very specific Islington project, it has much that could be copied across the country: "There is nothing to stop other areas inviting their youngsters to carry out litter surveys, ideally with the possibility that they will translate into real local change in the way the bins here have done."
And for the children at St Joseph's, the story does not end there. "There are a number of other initiatives on the horizon, including a rubbish-free lunch day and the signing of an anti-litter pledge," says Year 5 teacher Katherine Kelly.
Nor are the St Joseph's children alone in their litter bin location. As part of the A1 project a further eight schools have been doing similar work in north Islington. "The result is that there are now 54 new bins chosen by school children based along this major artery, with more to come once schools in the south of the borough get involved as part of phase two of this project," says Imogen Purchas, the A1 schools' environmental project officer.
"They are joining the 200 new bins that are being deployed as a part of a broad 15-year scheme designed to rehabilitate the road, so that it becomes an accessible and pleasant asset to the community, rather than the ugly barrier dividing the borough that it appears to be today."
In addition to the anti-litter strategy behind the bin-mapping exercise, a further 17 different school-based initiatives, many of them overlapping, have been paid for by the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund. They range from the deployment of talking animal-shaped bins in several of the borough's primary schools, to the funding of special environmental schemes in nine schools. At another Islington school, St John's, one of these is under way with the children making bird boxes for their restored ecology garden. At Grafton Primary School, the children have been involved in a keep-it-clean litter-gathering exercise, using the rubbish they collected to create powerful artwork that has been on display in a shopping centre.
"The pupils here are also getting the benefit of a specially devised environmental toolkit, sponsored and devised by the road safety team and distributed to all of Islington's primaries," says headteacher Nitsa Sergides, who is fresh from a grilling by pupils exploring the heating efficiency of their school buildings: one of the exercises in the pack.
"But of all the elements of the broader A1 scheme, it is possibly the talking penguin rubbish bin that has had the most noticeable impact. The children are always desperate to feed it. I have never seen the playground so clean."
* Further details about the A1 project are available at www.islington.gov.ukA1Borough