It's their world too

With the Earth Summit halfway through its work in Johannesburg, Linda Cracknell says children have to be involved in the issues.

THE First Minister arrives tomorrow. Stephanie Wiseman, aged 12, from Lunnasting primary in Shetland is there representing young people. You and I are not. But as we all resurface for the new school session, how much thought will we give to the decisions affecting our future that are being made in Johannesburg?

The World Summit on Sustainable Development will focus attention on the challenges of building a future in which the environment is protected, while prosperity and health are within reach for all the world's citizens.

The World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet report for 2002 shows the stark reality. Humans are currently running a huge deficit with the Earth - using more than 20 per cent more natural resources each year than can be regenerated - and this figure is growing. It is terrifying to think that consuming at this rate we would need two or even three Earths to support ourselves within 50 years.

The Earth Summit in Rio 10 years ago identified education as a major route to ensuring a sustainable future. But how much are schools in Scotland connecting to the challenges, choices and changes we face?

As a contribution to the national education debate, WWF Scotland ran an online conference during June. Mark Hope, who sits on the Scottish Executive's subcommittee on "A Sustainable Scotland", caught the mood of many of those who took part when he said: "We have become obsessed with measurement and testing and are in danger of losing sight of the necessity of ensuring that the system fosters creativity and thinking, builds confidence and social skills and, above all, encourages exploration of different ideas."

Schools in Scotland are often too focused on assessment and exams to step back and look at the big picture - such as how they can help equip individuals for a complex world in which the decisions they make in some way touch the world in which we live. Put simply, how can they help children learn to think for themselves, make their own decisions and help to contribute to wider society in a positive way?

Since the Rio summit in 1992, some schools have been taking a fresh approach. Three in Scotland have put ideas of sustainable development in education into practice through the "Our World" schools challenge, run by WWF and the Government. Lunnasting primary in Shetland won pound;15,000 to explore the school's energy uses and as a result have installed a wind turbine. Not only has this reduced their electricity bills by pound;2,000 every year, but pupils are learning about weather patterns, exploring different attitudes to wind power and taking positive action to reduce their own "footprint" on other parts of the world through energy-driven climate change.

Tomintoul primary's project addresses a local problem. As a small remote community, sustainable tourism is essential to promote local livelihoods. The children also need a recreation space. The Crown Estate has provided an area of local land for pupils to help build facilities and trails both for themselves and for tourists, while enhancing conservation.

The compartmentalisation of the curriculum is often seen as a block to linking up issues across subjects in secondary schools. However, at Fortrose Academy pupils are learning about native forestry in biology, responsible tourism in geography and energy saving housing in technological education.

They will be encouraged to make connections across the curriculum on a sustainability theme and be involved in management issues such as reducing the school's landfill waste, and planning new areas of the school environment.

ow can such initiatives become more widespread across Scotland? Participants in the WWF's online conference recommended a whole-school approach. Subject skills can be taught within the context of sustainability issues, and pupils should participate in decision-making in the school. What is needed is a cultural shift. Policy and practice should come to reflect the need for creative and questioning minds.

The new emphasis on "education for citizenship" has the potential to encourage schools towards learning and action on sustainability as a major current concern. But it needs leadership, both at government and school level. As Norma Smith, headteacher of Lunnasting primary acknowledges, many teachers will have to be convinced that these initiatives are not just another burden. More training and support will be required.

It is clear that if fundamental changes are going to be implemented from the top, a few pilot projects in individual schools are not enough. Widespread professional development is needed to raise the confidence and understanding of teachers on how to organise learning around what are complex contemporary issues. The political will to fund this development properly is also essential.

As the new session gets under way, it is easy for the summit to pass us by in the rush. But, if there are any doubts about the event's relevance to our own school system, we should remember that it is the future of young people in Scotland that is ultimately at stake.

It's no surprise that pupils like Stephanie Wiseman are often more switched on about issues of the environment and poverty than we are, as well as quick to offer up solutions. We should be using the summit as an opportunity to rethink our approach to education in Scotland, as well as to start listening more to our inheritors.

Linda Cracknell is education officer with WWF Scotland.

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