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Fresh hope from the pit of despair

There are moments in history when schools are in a position to change prospects for whole communities.

I've been at Cassop primary for 35 years, five as deputy, 30 as head. The school is sandwiched between two former pit villages in countryside scarred by industrial activities. When the pits closed we had a choice: either we could look back or we could explore new possibilities. Mining was in many ways a dreadful job, but it had nobility and people had a quiet pride in what they did. There was real danger of demoralisation - what was the purpose of a pit village without a pit?

At Cassop, however, we decided to look forward and saw one answer in our environment. Cassop sits on a magnesium limestone escarpment and the countryside harbours precious flora. Where spoil heaps and quarries once stood, now there are now nature reserves - thanks to all kinds of initiatives, including the children campaigning over the years.

We did pay tribute to the past. When the mine closure was announced, we commissioned a photographer and an artist to record a way of life that was about to end and these pictures now decorate our school. We also have our own museum of artefacts and documents salvaged from the pit. Our story tree in the school field is a seat hollowed out from an old beech, designed by the children in the shape of a pit lamp.

But our real work is in shaping our future environment. Generations of our children now believe that they can make a difference to their world. Our school has become increasingly self-sustaining. A wind turbine stands in our field, solar panels sit on our roof and our heating runs on recycled wood pellets. We have converted a classroom into a purpose-built laboratory, which children can use as a base for environmental field work and for making their own miniature turbines.

We call these initiatives Cassop Environmental Extra, and schools can book in to spend a day with us. The visiting groups are taught by me on environmental issues and they are shown how school sustainability works by pupil members of our Green Team, the keenest of environmental watchdogs.

Our ultimate dream is to build an environmental centre in our grounds - if we can secure the funding. But dreams are important. If we are to hold any prospect of a sustainable future, we must show children not only what they can do themselves, but also the routes by which they can influence others.

Headteacher of Cassop Primary School in Durham. The school is a Teaching Awards winner for Sustainable Schools for the North East and Cumbria and a national finalist. The awards take place on Sunday. To view the finalists, go to www.teachingawards.comwinnersregions.

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