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Growth industry;Subject of the week;Environment

Car manufacturers are not usually noted for their environmental credentials. But, Frances Farrer reports, one at least is supporting schools' drive to improve their surroundings

Environmental projects and industrial involvement in schools make a happy marriage. Industry has the means, schools get the benefit. One side of the partnership boosts its green credentials while the other enhances its budget and scope for action. On the face of it, there are no losers.

One such relationship has this year seen Swedish car and truck manufacturer Volvo channel pound;75,000 into environmental projects at around 175 schools (including 8 per cent special needs). A further 3,000 schools have each received a free activity pack as part of the company's three-year Practical Environmental Projects scheme.

The scheme is open to any school in the United Kingdom - from nursery to sixth-form college. The Volvo panel awards grants of between pound;100 and pound;1,000 on the basis of a project's contribution to improving the environment of the local community. Successful schools can, on completion of the project, apply for one of three national grants of pound;2,000, pound;3,000 or pound;5,000 to continue the good work.

Of the 175 schools involved in this, the first year of the scheme, 160 undertook some kind of garden project, with a few choosing transport, recycling or anti-pollution schemes.

Among the strong examples of cross-curricular, multi-disciplinary garden efforts is the one at Corfe Hills Upper School in Dorset, where an A-level social biology group has been working with GNVQ pupils to create a sixth-form garden from a semi-derelict area. It has involved clearing soil and rubbish, cleaning a large pond, and planting flower beds.

Biology teacher and co-ordinator Jennifer Meek says she conceived the idea around the time Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died. At its root was a desire to do something that would affect the future positively, in a practical as well as an idealistic manner. "I wanted to increase interest in plants," she says. "Flowers are wonderful, they can represent love or grief, joy, thanks, respect, remembrance, beauty and tranquillity. Man has destroyed patches of the planet, now it's up to us to mend them."

The PEP grant of pound;700 was used to purchase plants, a wormery, a sundial, books and benches. The project has allowed the sixth-form social biology group to study photosynthesis and plants' requirements for growth. It also provided them with several experimental possibilities including one of the most popular environmental items, the wormery.

"We started with 100 worms," says Emma. "We bring organic waste from home. The wormery turns it into liquid compost, then we use it on our garden."

Some students have focused on growing medicinal plants, an optional GNVQ unit. "Lavender and marigolds (calendula) can be used for cuts and bruises," says Stephen. "And marigold is anti-inflammatory." They also grow aloe vera and mint, useful for home economics. This group has been concerned with producing printed material on the garden, which will form the basis of the application for the national award, and will also be used in A-level and GNVQ coursework in art, music, biology, science and health and social care and leisure.

So far, some of the flowerbeds have been planted with trees and flowers, and the ponds have been partially cleared. Already, "it looks lovely from the staffroom", says Mrs Meek. She points out that when the weather is fine, students will be able to study out of doors in quiet, attractive surroundings untroubled by younger pupils.

One small group of A-level students enjoyed working on the garden so much they gave up a day of their half-term to speed its progress. And many group members are happy to be leaving something behind at the end of the sixth form.

Mrs Meek speaks of the students' gains from the project as "an awareness of environmental problems - to leave things a little better than they found them. To give rather than just take".

A final diversification for Corfe Hills is a concert being planned by the music department to celebrate the garden.

At Windmill Hill Primary School, Chapeltown, Sheffield, apound;200 grant has paid for a bicycle rack and cycling helmets to complement cycling proficiency teaching. "It's just for Year 6 at the moment," says teacher Rachel Clement, "but we may extend it next year."

Pupils have been performing manoeuvres in the playground and learning hand signals. "If they pass the proficiency test and get their parents' permission, they could cycle to school," says Ms Clement.

Volvo's environmental manager, John Pitts, says the company expects the diversity of projects will increase next year, and that the pack will be added to. "This has been our first time for such an effort," he says. "We're still learning."

Applications for next year's grants should be in by October, and the information packs are available all year round. For further information contact Practical Environmental Projects, PO Box 158, Marlow, Bucks SL7

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