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Don't waste your energy

Martin Whittaker investigates the effects of a programme aiming to encourage schools to think energy-efficiently

At first sight Ilfracombe Community College doesn't appear to be the model of energy efficiency.

Perched high on a wind-swept hillside overlooking the spectacular north Devon coast, its flat-roofed concrete block buildings look as though they were designed to waste energy rather than save it. But what the buildings lack in eco-friendliness its pupils more than make up for in their zest for energy conservation.

Over the past year they have done "room raids", where they pounce on a classroom without warning to test its greenness. Has the teacher left the windows open while the heater is on? And is that TV on standby when they could have switched it off?

They have "traffic lighted" most of the lights in the school, marking them red, amber or green to prioritise which could be turned off and when. And posters have gone up warning staff not to leave the photocopier on all night.

Their efforts are part of Plan it Cool, a pilot programme which aims to encourage pupils to reduce energy consumption, and to help schools teach sustainable development.

The 18-month programme has been run in 20 schools in Devon, Somerset and London by environmental charities Global Action Plan and the Centre for Sustainable Energy.

Global Action Plan was founded a decade ago as an independent charity following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It has since worked in businesses, schools and communities for environmental change. The Centre for Sustainable Energy also has a solid track record working with more than 1,000 schools across the UK.

The Plan it Cool programme aims to build links between secondary schools, their feeder primaries and their communities. The charities' staff help students and teachers set energy improvement targets.

This month, Ilfracombe Community College hosted a day-long series of workshops for its Year 7 pupils and children from nearby primary schools.

The school also unveiled a row of eight large solar panels (a photovoltaic array) on its south-facing wall. This will knock pound;40 a year off the electricity bill.

Andrew Walters of Global Action Plan says the pound;8,000 panels, which come with monitoring software, will be a valuable classroom resource across a range of subjects, including maths, science, ICT, geography, PSHE and citizenship. "When I'm in schools I try to link the project to the different curriculum areas because the more subjects that use it, the better it is," he says.

One of the exercises features mythical Green Island, which until now has never needed electricity. But demand for energy is growing as the island becomes increasingly popular as a holiday destination,.

Pupils are split into groups and given the roles of politicians, who have to decide how to generate the extra power. There's a hotel manager who wants cheap electricity as soon as possible and a villager who needs a job but would like to see the island use renewable energy. There's a scientist who predicts that rising sea levels through global warming will submerge half the island and a landowner who holds oil and coal reserves, who would do anything to make money.

In another exercise, solar power is demonstrated as pupils build models with small solar photovoltaic cells and electric motors. Then they take them out into the afternoon sun to see them working.

Mervyn Mugford, is head of Kentisbury Primary School, near Barnstaple, whose 33 pupils are involved in Plan it Cool. He says the project has encouraged them to think about how they can save energy. "We have encouraged them to do simple things like closing the doors and turning off lights in rooms that weren't being used," he says.

"Normally we have the computers on all day even if nobody's using them. We changed all the settings to power saver, so when it's not used for about 5 minutes it shuts itself down."

Garry Thompson, science co-ordinator at Ilfracombe Junior School says his pupils took part in an assembly to talk about saving energy. The workshop gave them the chance to put some of their ideas into practice.

"It is meaningful," he says. "If they take something away today hopefully it will stay with them for the rest of their lives. And they will be able to disseminate that to other children in the school and hopefully to their families as well."

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