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Eco-champs raise the green flag

North Ayrshire primary takes major steps forward in reducing carbon footprint and growing culture of sustainability

North Ayrshire primary takes major steps forward in reducing carbon footprint and growing culture of sustainability

What could be more inspirational than learning under the canopy of a living willow outdoor classroom?

The pupils and teachers at Lawthorn Primary in North Ayrshire can point to that - and much more - as evidence of their commitment to the environment and how it has inspired others to follow in their carbon-reducing footsteps.

From reducing food waste after school meals to cutting energy use in the classroom, the school has been recognised as sector-leading.

It is, said the judges of this year's Scottish Education Awards, an "inspirational school that has embedded sustainable development education in every area".

As winners of the Sustainable Schools award, Lawthorn can point to eight years of focusing on sustainability. It has just retained its fourth permanent green flag as an eco-school and received a gold award from the Woodland Trust.

Lawthorn is a relatively new school, which was built nine years ago in the town of Irvine, but has a rural feel to it as it is bordered by woodlands and close to Eglinton Country Park. So when staff wanted to find a way of making the school connect with its local community, it decided environmental issues would provide the right focus, explains Amanda Milne, principal teacher and eco co-ordinator.

Over the years, staff, pupils and parents have planted hedgerows around the school fencing and 180 trees - 56 in a cluster for shade and educational use, 60 in pots to encourage root systems, and the rest from seed.

Their 20ft by 4ft living willow outdoor classroom was planted over four days and designed in collaboration with a local artist, to combine educational value with environmental benefit - it helps to drain the heavily waterlogged clay soil.

Lawthorn was the first school in the local authority to use the calculator on the Learning and Teaching Scotland website to work out its carbon footprint; that plus other calculations allowed it to deduce how many trees it needed to plant to offset it.

Pupils have been working hard to reduce carbon emissions through a range of initiatives: they have cut car journeys to school to almost a third of the level eight years ago through a school travel plan that includes a "park and stride" scheme, "golden boots" awards and cycling initiatives such as helmet promotions, cycling proficiency and bike and scooter racks. The success led to an invitation to a conference led by Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity.

Despite increased computer use and a particularly harsh winter this year, the school has also reduced its energy consumption by 40 per cent over the past three years. Pupils take on the role of "energy monitors", responsible for switching off lights and electrical equipment, turning down radiators and checking that doors are closed. In summer, they make sure windows are opened, rather than air conditioning switched on.

Lawthorn has a "reduce, re-use and recycle" policy, which covers paper, card, ink cartridges, plastic bottles (pupils made a greenhouse from 1,500 bottles), mobile phones, spectacles (through the international charity Vision Aid) and bottle tops (recycled to raise funds for sports wheelchairs). Every classroom has a recycling bin and pupils must use both sides of every sheet of paper before recycling it.

But waste reduction does not stop in the classroom - it is even more vigorously pursued in the dining hall and kitchens, where food waste has been reduced by 80 per cent. Composters are used for uncooked waste and compost is then used to fertilise the school gardens.

Envirowise, a government-funded scheme to make businesses more environmentally friendly, audited the amount of food waste when 240 pupils had a school meal: they produced only 7.1kg of scraps from food preparation and leftovers. More than 4kg of this was then composted.

Pupils have a garden for each stage of their schooling and grow vegetables over the summer months. When they harvest them in the autumn, they make them into soup for the whole school, with the help of Eglinton Country Park rangers and school cooks. At the same time, the children learn about fair trade and the impact of food miles.

Environmental activities at Lawthorn are not seen as an "add-on". They are intrinsic to all their learning, says Mrs Milne, and Curriculum for Excellence has provided even more opportunities to develop sustainable development education.

"We have lessons from specialists built into our inter-disciplinary studies: Energy Action Scotland comes in during our study on electricity; local farmers support P3's farming study. Other inter-disciplinary projects include the rainforest, conservation and pollution, the body, fair trade, water, wildlife and habitats, weather, space and travel and transport," she adds.

Mairi Cunningham, a quality improvement officer with North Ayrshire's education department, praises Lawthorn for sharing its trailblazing work with other schools in the authority and its neighbours in East Ayrshire. She describes the range, quality and depth of environmental activity at Lawthorn as "outstanding".

Mrs Milne believes the focus on eco-work has "given extra depth to what we are doing".

"The young people," she says, "are more aware of their roles and responsibilities within the community and are incredibly proud of their achievements. They are dedicated and rise to the challenges they are faced with in order to make their world a better place for all."

Perhaps the last word should go to P7 pupil Kyle Travers: "My mum isn't allowed to put anything in the bin until it's been recycled - and I tell my wee brother what to do."

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