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Mucking in

After the hot air of the Hague it is easy to be cynical about prospects for a planetary clean-up. But, despite lukewarm support from government, Britain's 380 eco-schools are determined to make a difference. Stephanie Northen reports

Saving the planet isn't easy, especially if you feel you are doing it on your own. While world leaders were talking up their green credentials in the Hague last week, many pupils were enduring the consequences of a decade of watered-down promises. In soaking rain, they picked up litter, recycled paper and trudged to compost heaps with buckets of left-over carrots and cabbage. The dedicated cycled to school, telling themselves that higher fuel prices are good for the planet.

Many schools try to raise environmental awareness despite a lack of resources, money and government support. Some of the best organised are "eco-schools", part of a Europe-wide movement started in Denmark in 1994. The UK is home to only 380, reflecting the commitment and time - usually about two years - needed to win the right to fly the green flag.

There are many eco-awards and schemes, plenty of them sponsored by multi-national firms anxious to charm the younger generation. But the eco-school movement is the most ambitious, says Glenn Strachan, head of education at the Earth Centre in Doncaster. "It is about creating a culture where green becomes a way of life," he says. "We want to get across that the environment is not a bolt-on extra."

Bridget Fielden has got the message. Head of year and a science teacher at Northgate high in Dereham, Norfolk, she is also the school's green inspiration. Northgate is one of only 12 secondaries to have won the award twice, although Ms Fielden admits she would not have got involved had she known how little support the school would get.

Ice caps may melt, but politicians refuse to thaw. Over the past four years Northgate has taken part in two paper recycling projects - one run by Blue Peter and the other by the local council. Both were scrapped on cost grounds. Now pupils have to take the school's waste paper to local recycling banks themselves.

They want to save water, but to do that they need press taps rather than conventional turning taps. "We have no money and no one will give us the taps or sponsor them. So we cannot save water," says Ms Fielden.

A visit from the county council's energy adviser would cost them probably as much as they would save in a year; the district council has just closed its environmental policy unit to save money; and, most frustrating, when the school raised pound;4,500 towards a solar energy canopy, it was told the government co-funding on which it was depending was no longer available - even though schools are responsible for 25 per cent of public sector energy costs.

Ms Fielden says: "We don't want a reward for what we do, but we want more help. We need support and a network of experts to go to."

Sue Rigby, who runs the eco-school project with a staff of two and "hand-to-mouth" funding, emphasises the positive side of environmental issues. "It's not about doom and gloom and global warming," she says. "It is celebratory, and it is great when you see it working."

And, despite the problems, you do see it working at Northgate.

Saving the planet involves muck and mucking in. The school has set up a wormery and compost heap, planted trees, run action weeks, taken part in county-wide waste minimisation research, and worked out how much grot the 750 pupils and staff release into the atmosphere travelling to school every morning (enough pollutant to fill 11,267 balloons).

The first step to becoming an eco-school is setting up a committee staffed by children, teachers, non-teaching staff, governors and parents. The belief is that for change to be sustainable everyone has to be involved.

Schools as mini-communities can set an example. Sue Rigby says those that adapt best are the ones that have always done some environmental work and already have a schools council or an open decision-making process. "Schools that come to it cold tend to have more trouble because they may not be used to giving children decision-making powers."

Bridget Fielden, as co-ordinator, is supported by "the best eco-committee we have ever had. They're wonderful and they are committed." They are also thoughtful. The school does not recycle cans, although it would bring in money, because it would encourage children to buy more canned drinks.

And the committee is knowledgeable. They have the certificates, courtesy of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, to prove it. Eleven of them, all aged 15 or 16, gave up their own time to become the youngest people in the United Kingdom to pass the institute's environmental awareness exam. Visitors are welcome to chat about organic food, the virtues of liquid petroleum gas as a fuel, or the future of sustainable development. Ms Fielden says: "It's one line in science at key stage 3 - equating to one lesson a year. It's a sad measure of the Government's commitment."

Glenn Strachan of the Earth Centre welcomes the change, but asks: "Where's the support for teachers? To make children aware that they have a role in achieving a sustainable future is a tall order as well as an important issue." He bemoans the lack of resources and training for teachers, especially compared with the literacy and numeracy campaigns - "areas that teachers are thoroughly trained in anyway, and where lots of support already exists".

Others are more hopeful. Libby Grundy, director of the Council for Environmental Education, sees the arrival of sustainable development on the curriculum as a sign of a "sea change" within government. But she admits that "lots of good work is not being supported at the highest level". Ms Grundy would like to see a network of eco-friendly schools along the lines of the network of schools linked to the the Health of the Nation initiative.

Many campaigners see the appearance of citizenship on the curriculum from 2002 as another step forward. Jocelyn Horton, youth and education officer at Friends of the Earth, says young people are "clued up, but cynical", suspicious of big business's green credentials. She hopes the chance to debate topical issues in citizenship lessons will show them they can do something. "It only takes about six letters to an MP to make them think they should act".

Glenn Strachan argues that citizenship skills are key to achieving a sustainable society. "You need to empower children to take control of their future," he says. "The most exciting aspect is how participating in a small group such as your school can lead on to working at a local, national or even European level."

Such empowerment can happen. Most eco-schools are primaries, and they often raise eco-awareness with "waste reduction" projects - picking up litter to you and me. It is an easy concept for young children to grasp.

Eight-year-old Jack Dodd specialises in waste. He was on the eco-committee of Wilnecote junior school in Tamworth, Staffordshire, last year. So many children wanted a place that the school's deputy head and eco-co-ordinator, Shaun Miles, had to set them a rubbish reduction challenge. Jack proposed giving each class a bin, with a trophy for the class with the most rubbish by the end of the week. He got his place on the committee.

Currently Jack is "making sure all the plants are OK, and growing daffodils and that" for spring. But his heart is still in waste management. If Mr Blair came to Wilnecote, Jack would advise him to stop people dropping litter, because it makes the world a "messy place".

Wilnecote has one of the solar canopies that Bridget Fielden still hopes to acquire. The photovoltaic panels supply energy for computers and lighting, and an LED display in the hall shows how much power is being generated. at any time. When Wilnecote is closed in the summer the electricity goes into the national grid, although the school receives no payment for it.

Like Northgate, Wilnecote has had occasion to feel blue rather than green. Despite Staffordshire being known as an environmentally supportive council, Shaun Miles had to struggle through "horrendous" red tape to gain planning permission for the solar canopy. The school even had to fight for the right to erect its eco-school flag pole.

Both schools have the dedication of individual teachers to thank for their success. For Shaun Miles it was a love of gardening that sparked him off, a passion that took root on his arrival at Wilnecote, where he found a decaying glasshouse surrounded by weed-choked flower pots. His subsequent work is perhaps the only positive result so far of the greenhouse effect.



* Have a solar panel fitted to the school roof

* Encourage pupils to walk or cycle; short car journeys, before the engine is warmed up, cause most pollution. If they have to be driven to school, ask the driver to go slowly; driving at 70mph uses 30 per cent more fuel than at 50mph

* Stop junk mail coming through the school letter box. You can remove your school's name from mailing lists by registering with the Mailing Preference Service, Freepost 22, London W1 7EZ

* Try to use recyclable materials, such as glass instead of plastic, and buy products made from recycled materials

* Replace washers in dripping taps. A tap dripping one drop per second can waste five litres of water an hour

* Encourage your local authority to improve its recycling facilities. It could provide a recycling point or introduce a doorstep collection scheme

* Join an organised clean-up event such as National Spring Clean (organised by the Tidy Britain Group)

* Avoid using hoses or sprinklers. Install a water butt and use rainwater instead

* Close curtains at dusk to reduce heat loss through windows

* Use mains power rather than batteries. If you have to use batteries, use rechargeables, which can last 15 times longer than ordinary batteries

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